A phone is shown at the Milwaukee County Jail on April 4, 2018. Milwaukee families spend $5.1 million a year on phone and video calls from jail, a portion of which goes to the county, according to an analysis by Worth Rises, a national criminal justice advocacy organization. (jabril yousef faraj/ Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service)
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A plan for free calls for those jailed at the Milwaukee County House of Correction and the Milwaukee County Jail has been blocked due to budgetary considerations.

This move, proponents of the free calls say, is prolonging an undue burden for families already struggling financially. And the action has, they say, the earmarks of balancing the county budget on the backs of those least able to afford it.

The plan had been for free or reduced costs for phone and video calls to those who are incarcerated. Amid budgetary concerns, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors recently placed those plans on hold. 

An amendment passed by the Board of Supervisors in a 12-5 vote on Feb. 3 called for officials to gather more information and report back on how to best structure a proposal to efficiently provide free or low-cost calls and to look more closely at the plan’s potential impact on the budget. That plan is due before the board by July. 

This amendment was attached to a resolution by Supervisor Ryan Clancy that would have provided at least 75 minutes of free phone calls and 75 minutes of free video calls a week.

‘Crucial connections’

Elizabeth Brown, an activist with Justice Wisconsin, a civil and human rights advocacy group, said she’s fed up with a system of incarceration that takes advantage of Milwaukee families, especially Black and low-income families. Key among their struggles is maintaining communication with loved ones because of the high cost of phone and video calls from the Milwaukee House of Correction and the Milwaukee County Jail. 

“It causes extreme hurt to a family that was already struggling prior to their loved one being caught in the system to not have the ability or the money to talk to them,” said Brown, adding that on-site video visitation was suspended due to COVID. “Those calls help families maintain crucial connections and support each other.” 

Katelyn Harvey said her loved one is serving an 11-month sentence at the House of Correction. She said paying to maintain communication with him has been difficult.

“Having to pay bills has been a struggle the last couple months,” she said. “But talking to a loved one is so important because it gives these people that are in the House of Corrections and in the county jail hope.” 

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According to a fiscal estimate conducted by Worth Rises, a national nonprofit that advocates for the dismantling of the prison system, Milwaukee families spend $5.1 million a year on phone and video calls from jail, a portion of which goes to the county.  

These calls cost 21 cents per minute for phone calls and 41 cents a minute for video calls. 

Elsewhere in Wisconsin, the cost of a 15-minute county jail call as of 2018 ranged from as low as $1.80 for 15 minutes in Jefferson, Sheboygan and Vernon counties to $14.77 in Green and Polk counties, according to a Prison Policy Initiative survey of 30 counties.  

Brown said she’s outraged that a resolution that would have provided free or low-cost calls to those housed in Milwaukee County facilities hit a major roadblock that could delay changes for years

That Milwaukee County plan, which Clancy said he’d worked for 13 months on, was initially supported by the Board of Supervisors but was amended due to concerns about its impact on the budget.  

Clancy acknowledges those concerns but said a national nonprofit, Ameelio, a communications and educational technology company, agreed to donate free video calls. He said its administration fee is around $70,000 and added that the total of $600,000 needed to implement the plan was already available in the budget.  

“We are gouging families and generating a lot of money for the county and it’s absolutely wrong,” he said. 

Fellow County Supervisor Shawn Rolland introduced an amendment to the resolution that Clancy said “kicked the plan down the road.”  

Rolland said he’s also against balancing the budget through fees charged to low-income and communities of color. 

“It is immoral for us to do that,” he said. 

But, he said, Clancy’s plan blows a big hole in the budget with no plan to fill it. 

“His proposal didn’t explain the budget costs,” which Rolland said would have been more than $4 million. “It doesn’t include the extra staff that we would have to have on board to manage the calls and the safety of the jail.” 

Without more time, the plan would have been doomed, he said. 

“We can be a national leader if we get this right,” he said. “If they see us tripping up or making promises that we can’t keep, it won’t create systemic change.” 

Other cities, including New York, San Diego and Louisville, have already made phone calls free for inmates. There also is a national push to federally regulate the cost of calls for prisoners. The federal Martha White Prison Phone Justice Act would require the Federal Communications Commission to establish maximum rates that providers could charge for those services and set caps in the interim. 

Budget challenges

While that legislation languishes in Congress, there’s still the matter of the county needing to balance its budget, with many of its departments struggling. Milwaukee County Parks, for example, has about $500 million in deferred maintenance projects, according to Parks Director Guy Smith.  

Another challenge to moving toward free or low-cost calls is that the county supervisors recently approved a new three-year contract between the county and Inmate Calling Solutions, referred to as ICSolutions, the company that currently provides the phone and video services. 

That contract guarantees the county a minimum annual payment from the firm to the county of $2.036 million and an additional $100,000 annually to cover the cost of a county employee to provide onsite administration of the communication system. 

The company will also pay a one-time supplemental incentive of $425,000 to the county. The county has three one-year renewal options for the plan once it expires or it can renew it on a month-to-month basis. Exiting the plan early would result in a fee, according to Rolland. 

The current resolution still offers a commitment by the supervisors to lower the cost of phone and video calls each year to free or an amount to cover reasonable costs. Clancy has limited hope that it will happen anytime soon.

“We were set to take immediate action, but it has been set back years now. It’s unconscionable,” he said. 

A version of this story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. Jim Malewitz, Wisconsin Watch deputy managing editor, contributed reporting. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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Edgar Mendez / Milwaukee Neighborhood News ServiceSenior Staff Reporter

Edgar Mendez is a senior staff reporter for the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. He won a 2018 Regional Edward R. Murrow Award and 2014, 2017, and 2018 Milwaukee Press Club Awards for his reporting on taverns, marijuana law enforcement, and lead in water service lines.

In 2008, he won a Society of Professional Journalists’ regional award for columns dealing with issues such as poverty, homelessness and racism. His writing has been published by the Associated Press, Reuters, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and other media.