As is usually the case, money is the root of the problem. The Cook County Sheriff, like those elsewhere, try to find ways to make their departments more profitable. You may say, "Its not the government's role to make profits off of taxpayers and those poor and incarcerated." Theoretically that is true but not in the real world. Many Sheriff's are able to lawfully pocket excess monies in their accounts. At any rate, Cook Co. has been making a huge profit by charging excessive fees to inmates who make phone calls.
Inmates were paying as much as $3.60 per minute! The word got out, particularly by the good work done by public radio station WBEZ in Chicago. Seems that Cook County and the phone company they contracted with, Securus Technologies, jointly agreed to the jaw-dropping fees and divied up the huge profits. Word reached Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle who initiated action.
Preckwinkle has recently proposed reforms that would reduce the costs of 30 minutes of phone time from $30.00 to about $7.00. (the 3.60 a minute figure above generally applies to shorter calls which are higher for the first few minutes). The $7.00 per minute rate would be the equivalent of 23 cents a minute. This would not only cover the costs of the phone call and the additional security required to monitor inmate calls, but would also allow a commission to the Sheriff to be used as needed, however not at the rate before.
Across the country, people are starting to have their eyes opened about the way inmates and their families are held hostage by the very law enforcement people that swear to protect them from highway robbery. The inmates cannot shop around for reasonable rates and must pay what the authorities dictate. Efforts are under way in Louisiana to stop this same racket. It is indeed meeting resistance, just as is occurring in Cook County. In a New York Times editorial on November 28, its board declared such commissions to be "legal kickbacks" which overburden the poor and incarcerated.
Back to Chicago, Preckwinkle vows to keep at this until changes occur and the system is more fair. He frames the issue as being a moral one and not just political and administrative in nature. Most people seem to agree, except those running the prisons and jails across the country.
Others are getting involved too. The Center for Media Justice is a co-sponsor of the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice which is undertaking action to inform everyone and to light a fire under those with power to change this. Whether it ends with meaningful reform remains to be seen. FCC Chair Julius Genachowski has stated that the federal government has issued a notice of proposed rulemaking on correctional facility phone call rates. This is a refreshing change as the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), the arm of government overseeing phone rates, has done absolutely nothing to date to look into this matter despite receiving complaints for years.
All are encouraged to assist the poor and unfortunate among us and get involved in this issue for fair government.