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FCC weighs lowering rates for Westmoreland inmate calls

| Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Inmate phone calls generated about $270,000 last year for the Westmoreland County jail, but the regulation of interstate phone call rates could slash that number.

In response to long-standing petitions asking for the regulation, the Federal Communications Commission recently published a notice seeking public input.

Interstate calls from the Westmoreland County jail cost 40 cents per minute, plus a $3.45 hook-up fee, according to the jail handbook. A 15-minute phone call would cost $9.45 at that rate.

Inmates made 71,658 phone calls from the jail last year, according to Warden John Walton.

The FCC reports interstate costs vary across the country — from $2.05 at a prison in Montana to $16.55 from a prison in Idaho for a 15-minute phone call.

The commission is reviewing a proposal to lower interstate rates, cap rates and end exclusivity agreements with telephone providers.

“The telephone is a crucial instrument for the incarcerated and those who care about them because voice calling is often the only communications option available,” FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, said in a statement.

“Most inmates, along with their families and friends, are low-income, so in-person visits due to distance and expense are infrequent,” he said. “It is not uncommon for state prisons to be located hundreds of miles away from urban centers, but even in places where the facility is nearby, the engagement often requires a significant amount of time to clear security.”

Inmates at the Westmoreland jail can receive up to three visits a week. They have access to unlimited phone calls, Walton said.

“If it's available to them, we encourage them to make phone calls,” the warden said, adding that some inmates spend “hundreds of dollars” talking on the phone.

The impact of lower phone rates would result in less money for the two accounts the fees support, Walton said.

About half of the money generated from jail calls is put into the general operating budget, and half goes into the inmate welfare fund, the warden said.

In addition to the $270,000, the jail earned about a 68 percent commission from Value-Added Communications, its phone service provider.

The proposal is in response to a class-action lawsuit initiated by Martha Wright of Washington, who said she paid $1,000 a year to cover the costs of phone calls while her grandson was incarcerated. The U.S. District Court dismissed the lawsuit and referred her to the FCC.

Amanda Dolasinski is a Trib Total Media staff writer. She can be reached at 724-836-6220 or adolasinski@tribweb.com.

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