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Monday, April 22, 2024

Alachua County Sheriff’s Office limits free jail phone call plan

Inmates will receive three 15-minute phone calls daily in a break from the “unlimited” resolution

When Emily Westerholm visited the Alachua County Jail Oct. 1, she said the air felt like Christmas Eve. Inmates were excitedly awaiting the implementation of the county’s ordinance — allowing free and unlimited jail phone calls meant to go into effect that day. The excitement, however, didn't last long.

The Alachua County Commission voted 4-1 April 6 to allow incarcerated people in Alachua County Jail free unlimited phone calls beginning Oct. 1. Previously, phone calls cost $0.21 per minute, and fees often fell on inmates’ family members. 

The Alachua County Sheriff’s Office decided Oct. 1 to allot inmates two free 10-minute phone calls each day with at least a 15-minute break in between calls, rather than going forward with the original free and unlimited plan. Paid phone calls remained an option for inmates with a commissary account.

After commissioners found out about the change through a Gainesville Sun article late afternoon Oct. 2, they reached out to the sheriff’s department the next morning. Following communication between the sheriff’s office and the commission, a new plan went into effect allotting three free 15-minute phone calls per day per inmate between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. Paid phone calls are no longer an option.

The sheriff’s office is committed to working with the commission to get the initiative operating and allow the most available use of the prison’s phones, said Sheriff Emery Gainey in a statement to the Alligator. 

“We will continue to evaluate this moving forward so that we can provide the most effective use of the phone system,” he said.

For Anna Prizzia, the chair of the County Commission, finding out about the amendment to the original plan through the Sun came as a bit of a shock, she said. She tracks the communication issue to the ongoing transition to a new administration — Gainey was sworn in as Alachua County sheriff Oct. 1. 

Gainey was open to dialogue after the commission reached out to him, Prizzia said, but she still wishes the commission and sheriff’s office could find a better solution to the phone situation.

“I wish that there was a better way to do it so that people could have unlimited free phone calls, because that's what we asked for,” Prizzia said. “There could be a different approach that would allow a little bit more flexibility — managing the phones the way they've been managed in the past, but just without the expense.”

The hesitation to go forward with unlimited calls is a logistical issue, not a financial one, Prizzia said. The commission agreed to cover the costs of phone calls and negotiated with the phone provider to make it happen. The challenge now is to prevent inmates from hogging the phones or blocking others from using them, which could lead to fights, Prizzia said.

The sheriff’s office arrived at the three 15-minute call plan by calculating how many minutes would be needed if every one of the jail’s more than 800 inmates made phone calls every day, according to a statement from the sheriff’s office. Blocks of time like meals and headcount were identified as times phone use will be suspended.

The reality, however, is not every person is going to make three calls every day, Prizzia said, and she hopes the plan will soon change as the jail discovers its demand.

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While the commission is responsible for setting broad policies for jail administration, it’s up to the sheriff to implement them in an orderly and safe fashion, county spokesperson Mark Sexton said.

“The commission appreciated that the sheriff said as this is being implemented, they will assess it and gather data to determine if this is the right path, or if there's an ability to make phone calls even more accessible in the future,” Sexton said.

The county won’t jump the gun by predicting future changes now, but lines of communication are good between the sheriff and commissioners, and both groups look forward to making adjustments, he added.

Florida Student Policy Forum, a UF student group, brought the resolution to the commission in April in collaboration with the Alachua County Labor Coalition. Graham Bernstein, a UF history and political science junior and the group’s political director, authored the final plan. 

Bernstein wasn’t disappointed when the original plan didn’t begin on a moment’s notice on Oct. 1, he said. If the sheriff’s office takes extra time to figure out a phone plan that works, it’s only because its staff are stakeholders in the process who want to make sure they can effectively implement the plan taxpayers will be endowing, he said.

“If there are some growing pains or if they need to work their way to that final objective … I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world,” Bernstein said. 

Florida Student Policy Forum has no problem with taking gradual steps toward a free unlimited plan as long as “free and unlimited” remains the ultimate goal, Bernstein added.

Bernstein got involved in the plan after researching the benefits of free jail phone calls — which include easing financial burdens for family members. 

“We want to make it so that families aren’t choosing between buying food and medicine and talking with their loved ones who are incarcerated,” Bernstein said.

Bernstein realized the full burden of phone costs for families while speaking with Karen Stuckey, a retired accountant and prison reform activist who spent thousands of dollars calling her husband during his incarceration over the last few decades. The qualifier for her communication ability was her above-average paying job, he said.

“Imagine the family members of the incarcerated who are not accountants,” Bernstein said. “They’ll either go significantly into debt or they just won’t be able to talk to their family members very much, and each of those situations has consequences.”

Research shows inmates who have access to phone time with family members face lower recidivism rates. A 2014 study on 255 incarcerated women found familial telephone contact was most consistently associated with reductions in recidivism — even more than in-person visits. 

This isn’t surprising to Bernstein, who views a move to free, unlimited jail calls as a move toward improving public safety. If inmates have contact with the outside world, they are more likely to get housing placement and employment upon release, and lower recidivism rates mean less spending from taxpayers on re-incarcerating people, he said.

Alachua County’s incarceration rate is more than double the state average at 293.5 compared to 143.4 inmate admissions per 100,000 people aged 19 and older in 2022. 

Westerholm, a 48-year-old mental health therapist who volunteers inside Alachua County Jail, doesn’t share Bernstein’s optimism. 

Westerholm is the founder of Released, a Gainesville re-entry organization offering post-incarceration community support. In her recent visits to the jail, inmates expressed to Westerholm their excitement about the incoming allotment of unlimited calls, she said.

“They knew it was coming, and everyone was waiting,” Westerholm said. “It was a huge, huge deal.”

That changed when she visited Oct. 3 after the limitation to the rule was announced. Inmates weren’t getting good information about what services they had available and no one could tell them what was going on, Westerholm said.

The change from unlimited to restricted phone calls is heartbreaking for inmates who rely on phone time not only to communicate with loved ones, but to access resources through support centers like Released, she said.

“[Unlimited jail calls] have been done all over the United States and the sky did not fall,” she said. “It’s not rocket science … there’s no reason for us not to be able to do that — it’s the very least we can do.”

Connecticut, Minnesota, California and Colorado have statewide free-call prison programs.

Alachua County Jail’s three-free 15-minute plan will be adjusted and reevaluated in one month, according to the sheriff’s department. In the meantime, Florida Student Policy Forum is focusing on a statewide pilot program also approved to begin Oct. 1 that allocates $1 million to reward good behavior with free phone time in state correctional facilities.

Contact Zoey Thomas at Follow her on Twitter @zoeythomas39.

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Zoey Thomas

Zoey Thomas is a second-year media production major and the university administration reporter for The Alligator. She previously wrote for the metro desk. Other than reporter, Zoey's titles include espresso connoisseur, long-distance runner and Wes Anderson appreciator. 

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