Louisville Wants Free Phone Calls For Incarcerated People

Nov 12, 2021 at 6:26 pm
Image from Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.
Image from Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

This story was produced by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit newsroom by Louisville Public Media. For more, visit KyCIR.org.

Louisville is looking for a new vendor to provide phone and video call services from the city jail. Unlike its previous contract with Securus Technologies, the city wants the new vendor to make calls free for incarcerated people and their loved ones.

People making calls from the Louisville jail currently pay Securus, a private company based in Texas. The company then passes a portion of that revenue on to Metro Government in commissions.

But a request for proposals issued this week says the city will not only forgo commissions but will start paying for phone calls directly.

Records obtained by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting show Securus collected $1.6 million from the Louisville jail and paid nearly $945,000 in commissions last year.

“It’s so important for families to be able to have contact with their loved ones who are inside the Louisville Department of Corrections, and it’s a really great step forward that it can be free,” said Judi Jennings, who provides art supplies to children visiting family members at the jail as part of the Louisville Family Justice Advocates.

Jennings has been working with national advocates and city government officials to make calls free since the coronavirus pandemic limited visitation at correctional facilities.

“That’s been a problem through the COVID years, and that barrier is removed, and we know families are stronger when they can talk to their loved ones who are incarcerated,” Jennings said.

Phone calls from correctional facilities are big business. Securus holds contracts to serve all of Kentucky’s prisons and 22 local jails throughout the state. The company’s nationwide revenue climbed to $767 million in 2020, according to records from Alabama utility regulators obtained by KyCIR. Securus and other vendors paid $9.6 million to Kentucky jails for telecommunications services during the previous fiscal year.

“Nobody ever talked about (Securus), or looked at them, and I think just shedding light had a great power,” Jennings said.

Louisville Metro Council passed a budget in June requiring the jail to stop taking commissions from phone calls starting in January 2022.

That ensured the city would no longer take a cut of the money paid by people calling their loved ones from inside the jail, but as KyCIR reported at the time, it did not stop Securus from charging people to use its service.

“This whole matter was brought to us by people who were aware of the really very expensive charges for phone calls that were being incurred by families of people who had loved ones in the jail,” said Democratic Council Member Bill Hollander of District 9, chair of the budget committee. “We looked at the budget item, which initially called for a revenue item of $700,000 to Louisville Metro from telephone fees and Council decided that needed to end.”

A request for proposals issued November 10 goes a step further and asks prospective vendors to make phone calls free to users. The city will instead pay a fixed annual cost to the provider.

“All voice and video communication processed by and through the IPCS (Incarcerated Persons Communication System) shall be completed as free to the incarcerated persons and the called parties,” the request reads. “No fees shall be charged by Vendor to the incarcerated persons or the called parties.”

Bids for new vendors will be accepted through December 1.

Securus spokesperson Jade Trombetta said the company offers commission free and taxpayer funded options for customers and plans to respond to Louisville’s request for proposals “with the intent to extend our contract with the Louisville County Jail and offer phone services at no cost to incarcerated individuals or their families.”

The move puts Louisville among other cities such as San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York as well as the state of Connecticut, which recently made phone calls free from correctional facilities.

Bianca Tylek, executive director of the advocacy group Worth Rises, said Louisville is now part of a growing movement for prison and jail phone justice that has been bolstered by recent attention to racial justice.

“Not just racial justice, but also COVID exposed so many of these different exploitative models,” Tylek said. “When people were thinking about communicating with their families, when they were isolated and separated, I think all of these are leading to a really different discussion.”

“When you think about separating somebody’s family, or driving somebody into debt over a simple phone call, I just don’t think anyone in their right mind that doesn’t have a vested interest thinks that’s appropriate.”