In a time when prison reform looks to be gaining momentum in Oregon and around the country, Multnomah County, one of the nation’s most liberal counties, is headed in the wrong direction.
As reported by Street Roots earlier this month (“Captive consumers,” Street Roots, Jan. 2), and in this week’s edition (Revisiting visitation, Jan. 23), Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office has signed a contract with Securus Technologies Inc., agreeing to replace all family and friend in-person visits at county jails with the Texas-based company’s video-visiting service.
Securus is one of three private companies drawing revenue from people who are incarcerated in Multnomah County. TouchPay GenPar, also a Texas-based company, draws money from fees placed on inmate account deposits. And Numi Financial turns a profit from the transactions on debit cards — cards that are issued to every individual who is arrested and detained in the jail and used to reclaim his or her personal cash.
Securus is contracted with 2,600 facilities in 46 states. It boasts that it has paid $1.3 billion in commissions to correctional facilities over the past 10 years. In 2009, the last year financial information was made publicly available, Securus brought in more than $363 million in revenue.
To add insult to injury, Street Roots reported that long before Multnomah County signed a deal with Securus Technologies for its video-visiting system, the prison communications leader had already been pulling in millions of dollars from Multnomah County inmates and their families for years from high fees on collect calls.
In Multnomah County, Securus charges $5.43 for a 15-minute local call. The commissions made by the county from phone calls go into the Inmate Welfare Fund, which was set up to pay for activities and services that benefit inmates. But over the past two fiscal years, $92,521 was taken out of the Inmate Welfare Fund to pay for other things on the county’s agenda, such as an Eastside Streetcar assessment. The Inmate Welfare Fund was one of only a handful of funds diverted as part of a supplemental budget both years.
Multnomah County should renegotiate the contract with Securus to allow for in-person visitation. A U.S. Department of Justice report released in December states: “Incarcerated individuals have better outcomes when they receive in-person visits from family members and supportive community members.”
The DOJ says that while video visiting can help to keep children in contact with their parents, it has the greatest benefits when it is used in addition to in-person visits, not as a replacement. We couldn’t agree more. We have to preserve in-person visitation.
Moreover, Multnomah County shouldn’t be using money made from inmates and their families to support projects outside of the jail. That’s an end-run to a poor man’s tax. The money made off of inmates should back toward programs that offer inmates the opportunity to be successful both inside the jail and upon release.