Activists say Champaign County Jail phone calls cost too much. Here’s what they propose
CHAMPAIGN — Local activists are urging the Champaign County Board to lower the costs of phone calls at the Champaign County Jail.
Tamika Davis, who spent six months in the county jail, said the high prices of phone calls made it difficult to communicate with her children and her lawyer.
“How am I in the same county in the same city, down the same street and I'm paying $6 for a phone call using the same area code?” Davis asked board members at Thursday’s meeting.
People held in the jail need to communicate with people outside — especially loved ones and legal representation — at a lower cost, she said.
Contracting with a more affordable telecommunications company is one way the jail could potentially save money and be able to lower the cost of phone calls to people who are incarcerated, activists say.
Since 2018, the Champaign County jail has had a contract with Securus Technologies, a national company that provides communication technology in jails and prisons. The contract with Securus was initially slated to expire after 3 years.
Champaign County Sheriff Dustin Heuerman opened up requests for proposals from other companies. A new addendum would allow for more companies that don’t offer voice print technology — the collection of biometric data of callers’ voices — to apply. But the way the request was originally written, only two companies could apply: the current provider Securus, and GTL, a national telecommunication company and Securus’ main competitor.
After local pushback to the narrowly written request, Heuerman released an addendum seeking more information about the cost of providing two free 20-minute phone calls to each inmate every day.
The sheriff's office did not respond to requests for comment.
Champaign County spent $240,500 on the Securus technology up front and spends $66,750 each year, according to the 2018 contract.
Activists say the county should sign a new contract with Ameelio, a non-profit company that would offer several free calls for inmates per day.
Illinois has some of the highest phone call prices in the nation, according to data from the Prison Policy Initiative.
In 2017, Illinois passed legislation that capped calls in prison at 7 cents a minute. But, that doesn’t extend to the state’s jails. The state has the highest difference between the costs of phone calls in jails versus prisons.
The price of phone calls in the Champaign County jail should follow the drop the Illinois Department of Corrections implemented in the state’s prisons, said Urbana resident Sandra Ahten.
“It's the trend because people know that it's the right thing to do,” Ahten said. “And certainly Champaign County knows it’s the right thing to do.”
Farrah Anderson is a journalist and student at the University of Illinois. Follow her on Twitter @farrahsoa.