Dialing for dollars: Allegheny Co. will make $4.3M from contract providing phone service to county jail inmates

The Allegheny County Jail (Pittsburgh Current Photo by Jacob Mysliwczyk)

By Charlie Deitch

PITTSBURGH —  Allegheny County will be getting a $4.3 million windfall over the next three years thanks to a new contract awarded to Global Tel*Link, a Virginia-based telecom company.

The company will provide inmate telephone and communication service at the Allegheny County Jail, and the money headed into the county’s coffers will be coming directly out of the pockets of incarcerated people and their families.

Allegheny County officials were unable to comment by deadline.

Telecom services are extremely important to incarcerated individuals, especially in the time of COVID-19 when normal visitation has been suspended. In a summary sent to Allegheny County Rich Fitzgerald for final review and signature, the agreement is officially called a “revenue-generating contract.”

The deal will bring a whole suite of communication options to inmates. Aside from phone service, there will also be a video-visitation component and access to tablets for those visits and to access other educational and entertainment apps. They’d also be able to send texts and receive photos from friends and family

In its first meeting in two months, Allegheny County jail board tackles the outbreak behind bars

However, in order to access these services, inmates will need to pay a steep price

According to the contract, there is the Inmate Telephone System (ITS) and the Video Visitation Solution (VVS). So, if you want to see a picture from your kid’s soccer game, it will cost you a quarter. If you want to see a 30-second video clip, it’ll be $1. A half-hour video visit will cost you $7.50. If inmates want to watch a movie, listen to music or play a video game, the cost is $3 an hour.

And there are other fees as well, all of which are problematic and have some members of the Jail Oversight Board concerned. Under the contract, Allegheny County is set to receive a monthly minimum guarantee (MMG) that will net at least $100,000 a month (it could be more if more revenue is brought in). Additionally, the county received a financial incentive of $750,000, which will be paid in additional monthly installments of just over $20,000 a month for 36 months.

The financial gains were calculated as a percentage of revenue based on a daily jail population of more than 2,300 inmates.

(Pittsburgh Current)

Not only is the county making money off its inmate population, the money isn’t even going back into the jail’s Inmate Welfare Fund. That has some elected officials up in arms.

‘Literally the definition of a racket’

“This is literally the definition of a racket,” says Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam, a member of the Jail Oversight board. “Just take phone calls for example. The county receives 65 percent of all revenue made from phone calls. So, just by not trying to make a profit we could make phone calls 65 percent cheaper for inmates.

“But instead, the county is going to profit $4.3 million by privatizing services for basic human needs. This contract was negotiated in the dark. Neither the public nor this board were included in the process. There was no transparency whatsoever. We couldn’t get any information about this deal until it was signed and the county secured its profit, which included a bonus just for signing on three-quarters-of-a-million dollars.”

Hallam said she and other board members have wanted the county for some time to consider making all phone calls for inmates free. But in recent months as they asked about that, they were told by jail officials that the contract was being negotiated and they couldn’t discuss it.

The county has a lot of discretion when selecting bids from contractors. The only requirement is that they select the most competitive bid. But Hallam believes the only criteria used here was choosing the best deal for the county, not the best deal for the incarcerated population.

At this point, Hallam says there are a few options to rectify the situation now and in the future. First, the county council can legislate that the county will not profit off of people in the jail. Secondly, according to the contract, the county can opt-out of the deal at any time with a 90-day notice. That, she says, needs to happen.

“Any profit made off of members of our most vulnerable population is disgusting,” Hallam says. “This is not a good deal for incarcerated people in our county. It incentivizes the county to keep population numbers at the jail high at a time when everyone says our jail population needs to be smaller. It’s especially disconcerting that this deal was made in the middle of a pandemic.”

Charlie Deitch is the editor of the Pittsburgh Current, where this story first appeared