Under its current contract with Global Tel, Shelby County, Tn., is guaranteed a commission of at least $1 million per year. New county officials oppose the county’s profiting from inmates and their families.
Every day in Memphis, more than 5,000 people, on average, spend their hours locked up in one of four Shelby County facilities. More than half are pretrial detainees, held behind bars before being convicted of any crime. Dozens are children, roughly 300 are women, and the vast majority are men, reports the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Many inmates share one trait. Every day their family members strain to cover the costs that come with having a loved one incarcerated — from commissary food purchases to talking on the phone. Each time a family member deposits money for calls or the commissary, the person is charged a transaction fee of either $3 or $5.95 depending on how the money is deposited.
For the corporations on the other side of the prison communications industry, has transformed over three decades into a nationwide industry that in 2015 was valued at $1.25 billion — a sum built off exorbitant rates charged inmates and their loved ones to connect. In exchange for granting monopoly rights to operate telecommunications inside a jail or prison system, local governments typically take a portion of the revenue collected off each call, in what’s known as a commission fee. Under its current contract with Global Tel, Shelby County is guaranteed a commission of at least $1 million per year. That’s based on a commission rate of 3.7 cents per minute. If call volume tops 22 million minutes, the county makes an additional 4.5 cents per minute. The Global Tel contract is potentially at a crossroads, with new leadership at the helm of county government. During their campaigns, new County Mayor Lee Harris and Sheriff Floyd Bonner were asked about jail phone rates. Each said they were against the county profiting off inmates and their families.