- Associated Press - Friday, December 1, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska says some counties in the state are profiting from exorbitant fees for phone calls made by inmates in jails.

The organization began investigating the phone call system after receiving multiple complaints from families who were financially struggling to stay in touch with inmates. The ACLU of Nebraska used open records requests to gain information about the costs of calls.

For-profit telephone companies contract with jails to handle collect and paid calls by inmates. Those contractors then give a portion of the profits to local counties.

The report found that while inmates in state prisons can make a 15-minute call for $1.50, inmates in county jails may pay $7 to $19 for a similar call.

The high fees limit inmates’ access to the basic need of communicating with their families and lawyers, the ACLU of Nebraska said. County jail inmates are typically poor and can’t afford to pay the phone fees, said Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU.

Lincoln County switched to a new contractor earlier this year to lessen the fees charged, said Sheriff Jerome Kramer.

“So we got ahead of the game,” Kramer said. “We’re not in the business of fleecing the public, even if they are inmates.”

The nearly $37,500 the county received from its phone provider last year was used exclusively for programs and activities in the jail, such as purchasing better televisions and providing a pizza night.

Brad Johnson, the director of the Lancaster County Department of Corrections, said the fees aren’t unreasonable and help cover incarceration costs. A portion of the $398,000 the county received from calls in fiscal 2017 was spent on inmate benefit programs that provided access to drug treatment, as well as GED, recreation and parenting classes. The rest went into the general fund.

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