LINCOLN, Neb – Today, the ACLU of Nebraska released the findings from what is believed to be the first of its kind investigation into county jail practices around phone calls for prisoners. The investigation was spurred by intakes to ACLU of Nebraska from local attorneys and friends and family members of incarcerated Nebraskans. The ACLU found that county jails in Nebraska are charging anywhere from $5-$15 for a 15-minute phone call to home in Nebraska. When fees charged by counties are added in, a single call could cost as much as $20. Additionally, most counties lack policies or systems to ensure that detainees, including those who have not been convicted of a crime, can speak to their attorneys affordably and confidentially. The ACLU of Nebraska investigation also identified the Nebraska Department of Corrections policies and practices on these topics as a model to help counties make improvements.
“Counties throughout Nebraska and their private contractors are profiting from the basic need of incarcerated Nebraskans to talk to their attorney or their family. Every aspect of Nebraskans criminal justice system disproportionately impacts poor Nebraskans and communizes of color so this exploitation is especially burdensome on low-income Nebraskans. A growing number of federal, state and local agencies have begun to realize that imposing a high cost for jail phone calls hurts our shared public safety goals. Experts' research confirms that when people keep in touch with their families while in prison, they are less likely to commit new criminal offenses,” said ACLU of Nebraska Executive Director Danielle Conrad.
In Nebraska, 41,000 young people have a parent who has been or is currently incarcerated. Advocates in Nebraska have increasingly called on lawmakers to consider how mass incarceration impacts children and families.
“The ‘Profiting Off Lifelines’ report adds to mounting evidence showing that children pay a hidden and significant cost when it comes to our adult justice system,” said Julia Tse, Policy Coordinator with Voices for Children in Nebraska. “All children need meaningful contact with their parents, especially during stressful circumstances, and policies that permit financial exploitation of parent-child relationships are contrary to Nebraska values.”
The income generated through for-profit companies managing county phone systems is a small fraction of county budgets, but according to the ACLU, it can have devastating effects on poor Nebraskans who make up the bulk those in county jails.
“Someone accused of a nonviolent offense who cannot afford to post bond spends an average of 48 days in a Nebraska jail. If that individual were to make four 15-minute phone calls a week–including calls to their attorney–in one month they would spend enough money to buy dozens of gallons of gas. In several Nebraska counties, a family too poor to bail out could purchase 129 gallons of gas with the money used to make just four 15-minute phone calls a week,” said Amy Miller, Legal Director for the ACLU of Nebraska and lead author of the report. “The poor Nebraskans who are finding a way to pay the outrageous rates aren’t just paying the county. Most county jails in Nebraska use private, for-profit companies that literally have pictures of sheriffs swimming in piles of money in their advertising.”
In recent years, the ACLU has also had calls from attorneys and advocates about the lack of attorney-client confidentiality in many county jails. After reviewing the policies in all counties, the ACLU found that most counties lack a policy related to attorney-client confidentiality with phone calls. Some counties reported having safeguards in place, such as keeping a “do not record” list of attorneys. The Nebraska Supreme Court ethics committee has said that “mere assurances from the government” are not adequate.
“I expect the prosecutors to do everything they can to try their case and win. I also expect prosecutors to play fair and follow the rules. I've been shocked to learn how often the basic principles of attorney-client privilege aren't being followed. When a jail passes along information from a confidential phone call I have with my client to the prosecutor, I can't effectively represent my client. Cutting corners isn't how our judicial system should work,” said Ben Murray, an attorney with Germer Murray & Johnson who contacted the ACLU with concerns.
Nebraska State Senator John McCollister has already had a public hearing on the issue of phone calls in jails and plans to introduce legislation on the topic in 2018.
“ACLU research suggests that private phone companies, under contract with some Nebraska counties, are exploiting incarcerated individuals and their families by charging exorbitant prices for essential telephone services. As the ACLU study indicates, the commissions or surcharges that counties receive can be substantial.
“Affordable telephone services are indispensable to help incarcerated individuals maintain strong family bonds and confidential communication with attorneys. While some phone company providers follow strict regulatory structures for services to prisons, many are given an unfair advantage. The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, in contrast, uses contractors that provide reasonably priced telecommunications services to individuals it houses.
“I intend to introduce legislation in 2018 to provide clarity to county boards in order to establish fair-market prices for those incarcerated, their families and attorneys. Providing meaningful contact with families, as well as affordable and confidential calls with attorneys, is good public policy. Fair-minded Nebraskans across the political spectrum can support this action,” said Sen. McCollister.
“The good news is that the Nebraska Department of Corrections is showing our counties that kickbacks to the jail are not needed for a system to be cost-effective,” said Conrad. “The rates for the Department of Corrections are among the lowest in the county. County jails in Nebraska should follow the Department’s lead, particularly as more and more state prisoners are being housed in county facilities due to overcrowding. This move is a win-win: it gives prisoners time with their families, children a way to speak to their parents, and better public safety outcomes for our communities.”
For a copy of the report: aclunebraska.org/phonejustice