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Proposed bill would limit phone charges in Wisconsin jails

Study finds some counties charge more than $14 for a 15-minute call

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A cell door in the Dane County Jail
Dane County Jail. Michelle Johnson/WPR

Wisconsin’s county jails would be banned from overcharging inmates for phone calls under a measure introduced at the state Capitol.

A study by the Prison Policy Initiative found some Wisconsin counties charge more than $14 for a 15-minute phone call, which advocates say amounts to turning a profit on inmates, many of whom have yet to be convicted of any crimes.

Rep. Samba Baldeh, D-Madison, said the high charges can also discourage people from staying in touch with friends and family.

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“If people are incarcerated or detained and cut connection with the outside world, chances are that when they come out, they will go back to prison again,” Baldeh said.

Baldeh’s bill would require the Wisconsin Department of Corrections to write rules that would ban jails from charging phone rates that exceed those that national prepaid wireless telephone providers charge their customers. The plan would apply to both telephone calls and video communication from inmates.

The plan would also prohibit any charges on telephone calls or video communications between an inmate and their attorney.

Baldeh said it’s important to remember many people in jail have yet to be convicted of crimes, but they remain behind bars because they can’t afford their bail.

“They are innocent until proven guilty,” Baldeh said. “But at this point, they are treated as if they are guilty.”

Other backers of the plan include Rep. Shelia Stubbs, D-Madison, a former probation and parole agent.

“No jail should make profit off of the valuable connections of families,” Stubbs said. “Families deserve to hear the voice of their loved ones. And incarcerated people must have reasonable opportunity to maintain family ties.”

Joining Baldeh and Stubbs at a state Capitol news conference introducing the plan on Dec. 8 was James Morgan, a peer support specialist for JustDane, a nonprofit that helps people in the criminal justice system. Morgan, a former inmate, said his phone calls to loved ones were a lifeline.

“That phone call was what reminded me that I was more than an inmate,” Morgan said. “It reminded me that I was father. That I was brother. That I was grandson. That I was needed. I was necessary to be able to come home.”

The Prison Policy Initiative study found a patchwork of phone rates in Wisconsin. On the high end of the spectrum, Polk and Green counties charged inmates $14.77 per 15-minute phone call followed by $14.30 for the same call in LaCrosse County. At the lower end, Vernon, Sheboygan and Jefferson counties charged $1.80 for a 15-minute call.

Baldeh’s plan would need Republican support in order to pass the Legislature, which is tentatively scheduled to hold its last session day March 10.

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