The phone is ringing; you pick it up. An operator announces it's a collect call—your spouse, sibling, child—from prison. Will you accept the charges?
Good luck finding out what those charges will be.
Family members of inmates complain of 45-minute waits for customer service operators and billing statements that never arrive. The rates vary wildly depending on the institution—from $2 to $6 per 15-minute slot, plus a dollar for every finished call. Some companies charge $6.95 surcharges for credit card transactions, others require $50 minimum deposits into an inmate's phone account, some charge another $15 to get unused balances back.
All in all, rates for long-distance calls within New Mexico are "not just or reasonable," New Mexico Public Regulation Commission Utility Analyst John J Reynolds concludes in his Jan. 23 testimony in a rate case that has been going on since 2007. He also says the companies may be breaking the law.
"You hear reports of folks ending up with four or five, six, $700 a month in phone bills from detention facilities before they realize how big the costs are," PRC Chairman Sandy Jones, who has held three open meetings across the state on the issue, tells SFR. "Keep in mind, they don't have a choice. The inmate has to use the service."
Individual detention institutions have the authority to negotiate phone-service contracts. In New Mexico, three companies—Securus Technologies, Public Communications Services and Conversant Technologies—dominate the $9.85 million-per-year industry, with several others bidding on federal, state, county and municipal contracts.
Despite the competition, Reynolds discovered, New Mexico's in-state long-distance rates are 65 percent higher than those in New York, 140 percent higher than in Missouri and 471 percent higher than in Rhode Island.
These states, like New Mexico, prohibit prisons from making money off inmate calls by charging commissions.
"These phone rates were so high that families and inmates could not keep in touch with one another," state Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Bernalillo, original sponsor of the 2001 bill banning the practice, says. "You've got somebody from Farmington whose family member is imprisoned in Hobbs. They're not going to be down there every weekend. That's just impossible, so the phone is a lifeline."
Both Jones and Chasey agree that inmate phone service is a public-safety issue: Inmates who maintain strong relationships with their families are less likely to reoffend, they say.
Although inmate phone service is more expensive because of the need to monitor calls, the prison-to-prison rates in New Mexico are still significantly incongruent.
Reynolds says "the only conclusion" that can be drawn from this rate disparity is that some companies and prisons are ignoring or circumventing the ban on commissions.
In 2002, the Albuquerque Journal reported that Public Communications Services skirted the law by offering Bernalillo County a $950,000 incentive for "cable and wiring" in order to score a contract with the Metropolitan Detention Center.
In 2007, two companies bid for Santa Fe County's jail phone system. Conversant Technologies sued Santa Fe, alleging that bid-winner Securus Technologies had offered the county $50,000 for an undefined "one-time technology grant." Santa Fe County countered that Conversant had acted equally improperly by offering the county $52,000 for similar services. The county turned down both incentives and settled on Securus.
"The service [Securus] offers to us [is] considerably, considerably better," Santa Fe County Corrections Director Annabelle Romero says. "The cost to an inmate is probably a third of what it was before, so I'm pretty proud about that."
Reynolds suggests in his testimony that the PRC set a flat rate of 10 cents per minute for all in-state calls.
The PRC will have an open hearing in early April on the prison phone-rate case and, until then, phone companies and other interested parties will have an opportunity to respond with their own testimonies.
"It's a competitive bidding process with regard to correctional facilities," Jeff Albright, the attorney representing PCS, which controls more than 30 percent of the market, says. "It's a balance of being able to provide reasonable rates for customers, who are often friends and family of inmates, as well as what the needs of the individual facilities are…we think PCS does strike a good balance between competing demands."
Inmate families, however, currently have no representation before the PRC or in negotiations between prisons and phone contractors. One inmate family member, who asked not to be identified, filed a letter with New Mexico Attorney General Gary King's office, requesting his office's representation.
"What I would like is for there to be an investigation into all the contracts," the family member tells SFR. "Inmates' families are citizens, they're not incarcerated or convicts, but they're footing the bill."
King's office did not respond to the letter or to a Jan. 3 follow-up.
Spokesman Phil Sisneros says King, whose mother Alice King was an advocate for inmates' families, is apprised of the situation. However, the Attorney General's Office cannot legally represent individuals.
Santa Fe Reporter