The state Corrections Board of OK approved a resolution Thursday designed to reduce the high price of inmate telephone calls.

Hefty commissions charged on prisoners' collect calls pumped about $1.9 million into the state prison system last fiscal year - revenue that critics called legalized extortion. Thursday's 5-0 vote asks the Corrections Department to move to a pre-paid inmate phone system starting July 1. Also, the state's second-largest agency will ask Gov. Frank Keating for an exemption from a requirement that the state earn income from pay phones in state-owned buildings.

"I know this is not going to be popular with everyone," said board member Michael Roark. "We're asking that no profits be made on anything to do with inmate telephone calls to their families." The action came during the board's regular monthly meeting, conducted at the Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft about eight miles west of Muskogee.

Months ago, accusations of price gouging prompted Oklahoma officials to review the costs of inmate phone calls. Under the agency's current contracts with AT&T and Southwestern Bell, families and friends of inmates pay almost $13 for a typical 15-minute long-distance call from prison. "Such charges penalize those who had nothing to do with a crime," inmate advocates complained.

Lynn Powell, president of Oklahoma's chapter of Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants, known as CURE, praised Thursday's vote. "It's a wonderful thing to do because a lot of families have to restrict phone calls or can't accept phone calls," Powell said. But she said she would reserve final judgment until the new rates are set.

The department must negotiate new contracts with telephone service providers. Thursday's resolution calls for the Corrections Department to earn an "inmate telephone commission income equal to the personnel cost for monitoring and maintaining this system." Of the $1.9 million received last fiscal year, it cost the agency about $1.2 million to pay personnel who monitor inmate calls, said David Miller, the agency's chief of administrative operations. That amounted to a $700,000 profit. Also, rates should go down considerably using a pre-paid system, officials said. "Under the collect call system, telephone companies receive payment about 60 percent of the time," Miller said. With the pre-paid system, the companies "won't have as great an amount of bad debt. Moreover, the system will allow families to budget for calls each month."

AT&T split telephone rights in Oklahoma's publicly owned prisons, which house about 15,000 inmates. Private prisons housing about 7,000 Oklahoma inmates negotiate their own telephone contracts. However, Thursday's decision affects them because private prison inmates cannot be forced to pay higher rates than their public prison counterparts. Under the current contracts, the public prisons get a 45 percent commission from AT&T and a 35 percent commission from Southwestern Bell, corrections officials said. That means, for example, if an inmate's family member rang up a $200 long-distance bill, $90 of that would go to the Corrections Department.

Board member Robert Rainey asked if the board wanted to encourage communications between inmates and loved ones. Roark said that was part of the reasoning. "They're big phone bills," he said. "We don't want to be part of a process that actually punishes an inmate's family." State prisons don't charge admission when family members come to visit. The same should be true for phone calls, Roark said. Powell agreed. "A lot of children can't talk to their parents ... because whoever they're living with can't afford to accept their phone calls."

Congrats to Lynn Powell and OK-CURE.


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