Dallas County

FCC Gives Dallas County Judge Jenkins Win on Jail Phone Calls

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins lost the battle but he, and the families of inmates at Dallas County Jail, won the war. Last fall, Jenkins was on the wrong side of a 4-1 vote in favor of giving Dallas-based Securus Technologies a contract to provide phone service at Dallas County Jail. Surcharges from the contract would have put about $3 million in Dallas County's coffers, thanks to 15-minute phone calls that cost inmates' families at least $3.

Jenkins said the contract leveraged some of Dallas County's most vulnerable residents to balance the budget and pushed for the money to be found elsewhere. He didn't get help from any of Dallas' four county commissioners. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission gave him the hand he didn't get in October.

Thanks to across-the-board cuts imposed by the FCC on prison and jail phone call rates nationwide, the most Dallas County and its contractor can charge for a phone call from the jail is 14 cents a minute — that's $2.10 for 15 minutes.

"It's a great, historic decision to protect the families of jail inmates," Jenkins says. "We shouldn't be balancing our budget on the backs of our people."

About 75 percent of the 5,500 people in Dallas County Jail are there awaiting trial, not for being convicted of a crime. 

"[The new lower costs for calls] allow families not to have to choose between Mom filling her prescription or feeding her kids and staying in contact with family," Jenkins says. 

Jenkins stresses that cheaper phone calls from the jail will save Dallas County money in the long run. The calls help keep families intact, which cuts down on recidivism, he says.

Securus, which facilitates calls at jails in Texas and beyond, responded angrily to the decision.

"Today, the FCC made a colossal error in judgment, law, and public safety and policy," Richard Smith, Securus' CEO said in a statement released Thursday. "The FCC has had this issue for over ten [10] years — the issue of high[er] outbound inmate communications rates. The FCC's order that they approved today is patently wrong and is beyond belief given the record established in the proceeding. The order announced, if implemented, will cause smaller and medium-sized prisons and jails to lose the ability for inmates to communicate with friends and family. The lives of witnesses, judges, victims and others will be lost due to the inability to provide the technology that prisons and jails need to keep us safe. In addition, the financial stability of the Inmate Telephone Systems [ITS] sector is clearly threatened."

The changes, which ban flat-rate calls like those offered in Dallas County, will go into effect at jails six months after they are published in the Federal Register. Securus plans to appeal the decision in federal court.
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young