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Fla. inmates will get free calls for good behavior in new program

The Florida DOC plans to allocate $1 million to a new program that will make a small number of phone calls free for some inmates


Florida Department of Corrections

By Amanda Rabines
Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. — The Florida Department of Corrections plans to allocate $1 million to a new program that will make a small number of phone calls free for people serving time in prison who display good behavior.

Starting in October, incarcerated people who don’t receive a disciplinary report for three months will be eligible to make a free 15-minute phone call as part of a pilot included in the state’s budget that was approved this month by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature.

The program, which limits free phone calls to only once a month, was set up to promote contact between incarcerated people and their loved ones, ease the financial burdens for people who struggle to afford the phone service and incentivize good behavior in prison.

But in the eyes of Graham Bernstein, a student at the University of Florida and director of political affairs for the Florida Student Policy Forum, the pilot represents a “first step” to eventually making all prison phone calls free. He noted that people who receive calls from incarcerated individuals pay for the phone charges, though they themselves have committed no crimes.

“It doesn’t make sense from a variety of standpoints to have the communication system work the way it does, from a public safety standpoint, from the standpoint of the well-being of families, from the well-being of children of the incarcerated and for the well-being of the correctional officers who are short-staffed right now,” he said. “If you can keep people who are incarcerated in touch with their families, they’re more likely to be content and happy, you’ll have less assaults on other inmates and you’ll have less assaults to correctional officers.”

For the past year, Bernstein has advocated for legislation in Florida to promote communication between incarcerated people and their family members for free.

He helped pitch the proposal to create FDC’s free call pilot program and, in April, advocacy work he crafted with the Florida Student Policy Forum spurred action by Alachua County commissioners, who voted 4-1 to make all calls from the county jail free by Oct. 1.

Bernstein said he hopes what Alachua County is doing can serve as a model to expand free phone calls across all correctional institutions in Florida.

He likes to cite a 1998 report issued by the Florida House of Representatives that concludes: “If people with an intact family recidivate less, it is in the state’s interest to help struggling families to stay together…because research has shown that family contacts can play an important role in the inmate’s rehabilitation, it is a logical conclusion that the department should make every attempt to utilize this resource and do what it can to encourage family contact.”

The Florida Student Policy Forum is currently working on getting a draft state bill sponsored that will expand FDC’s program beyond providing only one free call a month.

“Anything is something and incremental policymaking is perfectly fine, but 15 minutes free a month if you’re free of disciplinary reports, of course it could save families some money, but the underlying crushing financial burdens that we’ve discussed again and again, those will still remain,” he said.

Phone calls at the Alachua County Jail cost 21 cents per minute, including a 9-cent commission rate that goes back to the county. According to a news report by the Independent Florida Alligator, Alachua County commissioners agreed to explore other phone service providers after its contract with its current telephone provider, Securus Technologies, ends.

The Florida Department of Corrections uses Viapath Technologies, previously known as Global Tel*Link Corporation (GTL), which charges users a rate of 13.5 cents per minute a phone call, in addition to a 99-cent deposit fee to add money into a pre-paid service account. The initial term of the $24.375 million contract ends in December 2025, with the option to renew the contract an additional year for five years.

Contract language states the FDC receives $5 million a year from telephone commissions, or about $417,000 a month. The money collected goes into the Inmate Welfare Trust Fund, which is meant to fund wellness programs for people in prison but instead has almost entirely gone back into the state’s general fund.

State officials supported the contract with ViaPath Technologies because it lowered the per-minute call rate by half a cent and also offered longer call times and the option to leave voicemails.

In a previous interview with the Orlando Sentinel, an FDC spokesperson said state officials were “looking to maximize value” for the majority of prison callers, who were not using the much lower call rate for local calls that was priced at 4 cents a minute.

According to the spokesperson, less than a quarter of prison calls were local, due to many of the agency’s prisons being located in remote areas of north Florida, while the majority of prisoners’ families live in Central or South Florida.

Karen Stuckey, whose son and husband are incarcerated, says she pays about six times more to speak to them than she does for her personal phone service.

In a letter to legislators, Stuckey said she spent a total of $6,095 on prison calls between March 2020 and April 2022. Her personal cell phone bill during the same period cost her $1,038.

“We have been experiencing a real communication problem for families in our prisons due to phone rates, quality of calls, lack of working phones. In addition, there are other issues with email, USPS and the ongoing lockdowns,” the letter read. “Families are frustrated.”

The money for the FDC pilot program will be sourced from the recently expanded Inmate Welfare Trust Fund, now capped at $32 million following 17 years of having most of its money drained, or emptied. Other programs the trust will fund include the creation of new vocational classes and more educational classes and rehabilitative services for prisoners.

The fund is generated from profits made off of canteen sales and telephone commissions paid by the incarcerated population and their families.

In an interview with the Sentinel, Stuckey said her phone calls to her loved ones give them something to live for. She believes promoting contact ensures people in prison have a support network that can help prepare them to integrate back into society upon their release.

“You have to keep families close or they lose their bond and their sake to get out,” she said. “Programs like [the new $1 million pilot initiative] reduce crime and reduce the number of victims.”

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