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Forgoing Profits, Dallas County Slashes The Cost Of Phone Calls From Jail

Aerial photo of the Dallas County Jail
Dallas County commissioners voted to reduce the cost of phone calls from county jail by up to 95%.

Dallas County commissioners voted this week to drastically reduce the cost of phone calls from inmates in jail.

Under the new contract commissioners approved, calls will cost about 1 cent per minute, which is believed to be the lowest rate in the country. The cost of a 15-minute phone call will fall from $3.60 to 18 cents — a 95% drop. 

County Judge Clay Jenkins said family members of inmates shouldn't have to choose between paying for basic necessities — like medication or bills — and talking to their loved ones.

"When the contract is negotiated with families and the community in mind, as opposed to the contract being negotiated with profit sharing in mind, you get a tremendously different result,” Jenkins said. 

Under the new contract, Dallas County will forgo profits from jail phone calls — reducing county revenues by roughly $2.8 million.

The national average cost of a 15-minute call from jail is $5.74, according to the Prison Policy Initiative’s 2019 study. While there have been efforts to lower call prices, most of the progress has been made in state prisons, like those in Illinois that lowered their prices to less than a penny per minute.

On average, phone calls from local jails cost over three times more than phone calls from state prisons. The highest cost of a 15-minute call from a local jail is $24.82 in Arkansas and $20.12 in Montana charges $20.12, according to data from the Prison Policy Initiative. 

In Dallas County, nearly 70% of inmates in jails are facing charges but haven’t been convicted. Expensive phone calls in jail disproportionately affect lower-income people who make up the majority of the population who are being held pre-trial and can’t afford to post bail. The 2018 median annual income of men in jails was $17,676 and $11,184 for women. 

The Prison Policy Initiative study outlines several reasons why jails are more vulnerable to bad contracts with phone companies than state prisons: jails are smaller and don’t have the staff to negotiate better deals, local governments which run jails are less likely to think long-term, people tend to be released from jail after a few days so it’s difficult to consistently advocate for changes and state legislatures don’t pay attention to jail policy. 

Janar Bradford is a member of the Texas Organizing Project, an advocacy group which supports decreasing the cost of phone calls from jail. Bradford told commissioners he only spoke to his mother once during his year in jail because she couldn't afford to take his calls. He said separate from the financial burden, there is a personal toll. 

"It's more expensive to survive inside a jail than even being free,” he said. “Not only is it straining financially, but socially and emotionally it's a struggle." 

Michael Sneed, who is also with the Texas Organizing Project, told the court the costs of keeping in touch with lawyers and loved ones is too high.

“The last time I was incarcerated I spent close to $1,500 on the phone," he said. "Thank God I had a job and was able to save this money and have money in the bank, because I would be stuck. My family wasn't going to send me money.” 

Commissioner J.J. Koch said cheaper phone calls will help reduce recidivism rates, help people get out of jail quicker and lower the county's jail costs.

“The data's been very clear, particularly those on the lower end of the spectrum, that maintaining communications with families, with employers gives them a better opportunity to not fail in the future,” he said. 

KERA's Christopher Connelly contributed to this report. 

Correction: Janar Bradford's first name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

Elizabeth Myong is KERA’s Arts Collaborative Reporter. She came to KERA from New York, where she worked as a CNBC fellow covering breaking news and politics. Before that, she freelanced as a features reporter for the Houston Chronicle and a modern arts reporter for Houstonia Magazine.