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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Alachua County Commission votes 4-1 to allow free, unlimited prison phone calls

Plans will go into effect by Oct. 1

The Alachua County Commission voted Thursday night 4-1 to provide free and unlimited prison phone calls by Oct. 1. 

Currently, phone calls at the Alachua County Jail cost $0.21 a minute, making a 15-minute phone call around $3. Area codes outside of Gainesville are charged more. Often, the families of prisoners are billed if a prisoner doesn’t have an account open. 

Commissioners were presented with several options. While they originally considered the concept of phasing in unlimited phone calls by starting with five free 15-minute calls a week, after hearing from 33 members of the public, Commissioner Anna Prizzia made the motion to implement free, unlimited calls as soon as possible. 

“I’ve given this a lot of thought,” Prizzia said. “I didn’t go into this lightly.” 

All 33 residents were in favor of unlimited phone calls. A couple were in favor of allowing Alachua County Sheriff Clovis Watson manage negotiations with Securus Technologies, the company that owns, operates and profits off of the jail phones. However, most did not support this — many said they didn’t trust him to handle the contract after hearing his presentation to the commission. 

Although he isn’t against free phone calls, Watson doesn’t think the jail has the staff to handle an influx of prisoners who want to make calls once they’re free of charge, he said. He also doesn’t think the jail has enough phones. He could see more unrest and fighting because of it, he said. 

Gainesville resident Leigh Scott, who spent seven years in prison, doesn’t believe that will be an issue, he said. His time incarcerated was the worst period in his life, he said, and his children had to pay to call him because his wife died shortly before he was put in prison. 

“My family should not have been punished,” Scott said. “They didn’t do anything wrong.” 

In addition to his own personal experience, he also works as a volunteer coordinator at GRACE Marketplace, where he interacts with a lot of people fresh out of the jail, he said. He doesn’t think Watson’s assumptions about what the jail will be like with free phone calls are true, he said. 

“The things we heard tonight were fear-based,” Scott said. “I hope that everyone can see through that and not turn over trust to that display.” 

In the same vote, the commission included the fact that the county will be the one handling negotiations, with some input from Watson. 

Prizzia is intent on keeping this issue in the hands of the people, she said. She pointed out if the contract had been solely in Watson’s hands, the meeting Thursday wouldn’t have happened in the first place. 

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“For me, it’s not about trust,” she said. “He doesn’t have to ask the public what they think when he negotiates that contract.”

Securus Technologies takes $0.12 of the cost per minute, while the county currently makes the remaining $0.09. However, the commission ruled the county stop taking that money as soon as possible, lowering rates to $0.12 when the county can get a contract amendment with Securus to make that happen. 

When Commissioner Ken Cornell realized the county was making around $375,000 annually off the phone calls, it changed his perspective. He didn’t want a part of what several residents called “dirty money,” he said. 

“The cost, when it went from the backs of the families to the county overseeing it, went from $0.21 to a nickel,” he said. “There’s a lot of profit in that $0.12.” 

Commissioner Charles Chestnut was the only dissenting vote at the end of the night. He also supports unlimited phone calls but not in the swift way the commission is implementing it, he said. He isn’t sure the commission has the funds to supplement the full costs of prison calls. 

Established as a worst-case scenario, the county could end up paying out $1.3 million if there is an upswing in prisoner phone calls once they’re free, according to a presentation from county staff. 

Chestnut pointed out the ongoing debt problem the Gainesville City Commission has been facing. He doesn’t want to make any rash financial decisions, and he isn’t comfortable with the plan to make the phone calls free, he said. 

“I’ve always been a guy that likes to do things by numbers,” Chestnut said. “Instead of being reactionary and emotional about it, I just want to be fiscally sound when we do it.”

Contact Siena at sduncan@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @SienaDuncan. 

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Siena Duncan

Siena Duncan is a sophomore journalism major and the graduate school beat reporter for the Alligator. When she's not out reporting, she's typically bothering her friends about podcasts or listening to Metric on repeat. 


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