They successfully fought contract provisions that would have banned in-person visits at the Dallas County jail while the county made money from new video visits. Now exonerated inmates, prison rights advocates and County Judge Clay Jenkins aim to make the county among the first in the nation to stop profiting off phone calls between jail inmates and their families.
About $3 million in the county's recently approved budget stands to come from surcharges applied to phone calls made to and from the jail, but Jenkins wants to change course and find the money elsewhere.
"What you've got is an irreconcilable conflict between our desire to make money off these poor families so we can balance our budget and our duty to lower crime and treat people fairly," Jenkins says.
Each phone call made from the Dallas County Jail costs $3 and is limited to about 15 minutes. If the county stops imposing surcharges on calls, the same 15 minute call could cost as little as $.47.
"When people are in jail, communication with their family is one of the best ways to encourage them to take action so they won't be back in jail again and to have their best outcome after they're out of jail," Jenkins says.
As states like California and New York have phased out phone commissions at state prisons, county jails have clung to the fees, often in order to seek that inmates pay their own way as much as possible while in jail. This is despite the fact that 73 percent of the inmates in Dallas County Jail have not been convicted of a crime. They are often, Jenkins says, people who simply can't afford to bail out while awaiting trial.
Peter Wagner, the director of the Prison Policy Initiative, says that Dallas will be the third county he knows of that's ditched surcharges -- after San Francisco County in California and Dane County in Wisconsin. Doing so would put Dallas County on the right side of history as the Federal Communications Commission considers banning the surcharges entirely, Wagner says. (PPI has done extensive research on the topic , but getting explicit numbers on county budgets is exceedingly difficult, Wagner says.)
"You give up the surcharge, what do you get in exchange? You keep families together. You increase the volume of calls, which keeps families together. You make it more likely that people succeed when they get out. For kids whose parents are incarcerated, the damage of incarceration is minimized," Wagner says.
Cheaper phone calls reduce long-term expenses for county social services, because families don't incur tremendous costs just to keep in touch.
Texas CURE, a local prison rights group, has been instrumental to the fight, sending multiple speakers to county commissioners meetings and organizing on social media.
"Texas CURE believes that communication between families and incarcerated loved ones is key," Josh Gravens, the group's chairman, says. "We're at the precipice where we can decide if we are going to continue to justify commissions because of the budget."
The county budget, according to Jenkins and Gravens, should not be built on the backs of people like Christopher Scott and his family.
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"One time, my [monthly] bill was like $525 dollars," says Scott, a Dallas County man wrongly convicted of murder in 1997. Scott, who was released in 2009 and declared innocent by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 2010, says he and his family had no choice but to continue paying the bills, no matter how high, because he had to stay in touch with the world and continue his legal fight.
"When your facing a charge, and you're in jail," Scott says, "there's a difference between you saying you did it and you saying you're not guilty. Me being not guilty of this crime, I was always trying to reach out to my attorney.We know as African Americans and the things that we go through with the judicial system, we know one thing for sure: The streets talk, the streets talk, so we want to be in constant contact with people that are on the streets to get clarification about how this mix-up happened. You want to know because you're in there for a crime you didn't commit."
Scott made four or five phone calls a day, to talk to his kids when the got home from school, to talk to them again before they went to bed, to talk to his lawyer and to talk to his then fiancee. Scott also called his mother multiple times each week.
"No matter what they thought [about the cost of the calls] or what I thought, it [making the calls] was a must," he says. "The phone was a lifeline. The phone and visitation, those are the most important things in jail or in prison. If we don't have them, we don't have access to society."