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Resource ID: #25840
Source:WBEZ Radio (Chicago)
This series of stories started with a simple question. Why does it cost so much for inmates to make calls from the Cook County Jail? In the course of my reporting on criminal and legal affairs for WBEZ, the public radio station in Chicago, I had heard numerous people complain about the high cost of phone calls. Some digging confirmed that the price could be as high as $15.00 for 15 minute calls. Three or four calls a week at that price gets expensive even for financially stable middle class folks, but the people paying these fees were mostly the poorest residents in Chicago. That's because most of the people in the Cook County Jail are there because they and their families couldn't afford to post bond of a couple thousand, or sometimes even just hundreds of dollars to secure their freedom while awaiting trial. They are the people who are least able to afford such expensive phone calls. A few FOIA requests revealed the scheme (and scheme is the right word… I just looked it up: a crafty or secret plan of action). Cook County gave an exclusive phone contract to a company called Securus Technologies. Securus charged inflated phone rates and their exclusive deal in the jail meant inmates wanting to talk to their families or arrange their defense had no choice but to pay the rates. Securus then paid back to the county 57½ percent of the revenue from the calls. It netted the county about $4 million a year. Securus wouldn't tell us their take but I imagine they did alright too. All of the money was coming out of the pockets of the poorest residents in Cook County, people who couldn't even afford to post bond for their freedom. (As an aside, this isn't just an issue in Cook County. According to its website Securus provides the phone systems for 850,000 inmates in 2,200 jails and prisons across the country.) Our reporting shed public light on a hugely profitable contract that no one was paying attention to. We documented the lives of the impoverished people getting hammered by the policy and then turned the hammer on the local elected officials to ask them to explain how this was a good policy. The public officials responded in a way that once again proved the genius of democracy. Our efforts and the results are detailed in subsequent answers below.