House bill would limit cost of phone calls for Missouri inmates

A bill in the Missouri House would limit the cost of inmate phone calls at all correctional facilities to a maximum of 21 cents per minute.

During a hearing, one witness recalled paying as much as $2 per minute for a phone call.

"When I was incarcerated, my wage working on a warehouse loading dock was about two and a half cents, that was my hourly wage," Jeff Smith, a witness testifying for the bill, said Wednesday. "The charge for me to call home was almost $2 a minute. So if I didn't need deodorant or toothpaste or shampoo or soap or other things that month, I could have a two-minute phone call."

Smith testified on the behalf of Missouri Appleseed during a House Corrections and Public Institutions Committee hearing. Missouri Appleseed is a nonprofit that champions bipartisan legislation to help pass sensible reforms.

House Bill 693, proposed by Rep. Michael Davis, R-Kansas City, would limit charges for phone calls at a correctional facility (or any other entity) to 12 cents a minute. A jail would be able to charge a maximum of 21 cents per minute, depending on its size.

"I've always been a supporter of those who don't always have an advocate. ... I think this is another step in that direction, making sure that people who don't have other options have dignity when they're incarcerated," Davis said during the hearing.

Missouri representatives heard testimony on the bill at a hearing Wednesday evening. All witnesses present at the hearing were in favor of the bill. Davis said it was his third year sponsoring the bill and that, in the previous two years, the bill had unanimous support.

"I think it's a good bill, I think it allows for a profit for a business to make without price gouging. We're dealing with a group of folks that don't really have a lot of options for making phone calls, they're kind of stuck to the one system," Rep. Chad Perkins, R-Bowling Green, said during the hearing.

Gwen Smith, who testified on the behalf of Empower Missouri, said the average 15-minute phone call at a correctional facility in the United States costs $5.74. She said some prisons in the state charge well above that price, giving the example of the Cape Girardeau County Jail, which charges $6.95 for a 15-minute phone call.

"One study found that more than one in three individuals with an incarcerated loved one went into debt over the cost of staying in touch with loved ones," she said.

She said the correctional telecommunications sector generates $1.4 billion annually from inmate phone calls.

Jeff Smith said there were two major factors that reduced recidivism among incarcerated people.

"The first one is if people advance educationally while they're incarcerated ... the other thing that can happen during people's incarceration is if they stay in close contact with loved ones. That can meaningfully reduce the likelihood that they go back," he said.

Jeff Smith also said close contact with family members can reduce the risk of incarcerated people to have substance abuse issues.

He also said the Missouri Department of Corrections currently charges 5 to 7 cents per minute for a phone call in prisons, below the 12 cent cap set by the bill. He said this was to ensure they weren't forcing all prisons to abide by too strict of a standard.

"One out of every five county jails charges more than $5 per 15-minute phone call," Smith said.

Smith said some of the protocols around how prison phone calls work already made it difficult for inmates to affordably get into contact with their loved ones.

"I can tell you from experience, when you're calling out, an operator will come in and take up about a third of every minute by saying, 'You are now speaking to an inmate ...' -- it will say that repeatedly at every minute during a call," Jeff Smith said.

The bill stipulates that the cap for a jail depends on the average daily population of inmates. If the average daily population exceeds 1,000 inmates, the maximum a jail can charge an inmate for a phone call is 14 cents per minute. If the average daily population is less than 1,000 inmates, the maximum amount a jail can charge is 21 cents per minute.

HB 693: Creates provisions regarding the use of telephones in correctional facilities

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