Dallas County commissioners on Tuesday are expected to dramatically reduce the cost of phone calls from jail, making it easier for inmates to stay connected to the outside world.
For years, it cost inmates and detainees being held without a conviction — and their families — about $3.60 for every 15-minute phone call. Going forward, that same phone call will cost only 18 cents.
As part of the new deal, the more than 5,000 inmates in Dallas County’s jail for the first time will have access to electronic tablets that include a legal library, religious texts and messaging software.
“We heard from relatives who were choosing between buying food and taking calls from the jail,” Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said in a statement. “Being in contact with your loved ones while they are in jail is important to their well-being and plays a significant role in recidivism rates.”
Tuesday’s vote is the latest development among elected leaders in Dallas County to remake the criminal justice system. The county is retooling its bail system and District Attorney John Creuzot has moved to decriminalize low-level offenses.
The county opted to forgo millions in revenue it made from the jailhouse communication as part of its contract with Securus Technologies, making the sharp decrease in the cost of phone calls and other video communication between those in jail and their families possible.
Commissioner John Wiley Price, a Democrat who represents most of southern Dallas County, signaled earlier this month he may vote against the change due to budget concerns.
“We’re going to have to pick up $2.4 million,” he said at the commissioner’s Feb. 8 meeting, referring to how much he said the county will lose by charging inmates less for phone calls.
The loss is less than 1% of the county’s billion dollar budget. And it will save inmates and families an estimated $4.6 million a year,according to an analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform.
“People in jail are some of the poorest in the county and at a challenging part in their lives,” said Peter Wagner, the group’s executive director. “Under the old system, the county was making that worse for no social good.”
The steps Dallas County took to renegotiate the contract, specifically stating that it wanted the lowest price possible for inmates and families and would not seek profit sharing, is a national model, Wagner said.
Dallas’ previous rate of 24 cents per minute was already lower than both the statewide average, 44 cents per minute, and the national average of 38 cents per minute, according to the organization. The new rate of about one penny per minute will be among the lowest in the nation.
However, the Texas Organizing Project, a progressive nonprofit that has pushed the county for bail reform and other changes, is arguing that the decrease doesn’t go far enough.
Part of their rationale is the sheer number of people sitting in jail without a conviction. On Jan. 1, nearly 70% of the inmates — 3,673 — in Dallas County jail were awaiting a trial. These individuals, activists said, should not have to pay to coordinate their defense with families and lawyers.
“It shouldn’t be a punishment,” Julie Vazquez, a group member, told commissioners at their Feb. 4 meeting.
Jenkins said he broached the idea of absorbing the cost of phone calls for individuals in jail, however, it did not gain traction with other commissioners.
Carrollton-based Securus, the company that provides the jail’s phone service, recently hired a new CEO that has pledged to change its practices. The Los Angeles Times reported earlier this year that the company had lowered the average price of a call during the last three years to 15 cents a minute. However, it still has contracts with rates at $1 a minute.
As part of the new contract with Dallas County, the jail will begin to issue tablets to inmates who are connected to a secured intranet. Inmates will be able to rent a tablet for $5 a month that will include free educational resources. They’ll also be able to download movies, music and video games ranging from 99 cents to $12.99.
Sheriff Marian Brown had raised concerns about how tablet use would be monitored. She was worried inmates would be able to use the devices to contact victims or accomplices without supervision.
Those fears have since been alleviated, she said. Inmates can’t initiate communication and will only be able to respond to approved friends and family members. As part of the contract, inmates can read incoming messages for free, but a response will cost 24 cents.
Brown said she hopes the tablets, which will have a “slow roll out,” may be used as an incentive for good behavior.
“You know, you have to behave yourself if you’re going to use the tablet,” she said. “If you’re not behaving yourself, then of course you don’t get the tablet.”