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Iowa Utilities Board Approves Agreements Lowering Cost Of Jail Phone Calls

Dawn Herbert visits with her son Tommy Rogers via video call at Cheshire County Jail in Keene, N.H.
Natasha Haverty for NPR
Natasha Haverty for NPR
Dawn Herbert visits with her son Tommy Rogers via video call at Cheshire County Jail in Keene, N.H.

The Iowa Utilities Board approved new agreements with three companies Tuesday lowering the cost of phone services for Iowans held in some county jails. The changes are part of a years-long effort to cut the price of making and taking phone calls in Iowa’s jails. The issue is one of concern for advocates across the country, with federal courts describing jail phone rates as “egregious," “excessive” and “unaffordable."

According to an analysis by the national advocacy group the Prison Policy Initiative, the new rates approved by the Iowa Utilities Board in recent months will save Iowans a million dollars a year. PPI has been petitioning the IUB to lower the rates for years and has heralded the results in Iowa as a success it hopes to replicate in other states.

According the group, before the IUB approved new tariffs for the phone service providers, rates were “as high as $3.74 for the first minute and $0.74 for each subsequent minute” in some Iowa jails.

“Following the Board’s tariff revision process, rates are now effectively capped at 25¢ per minute, resulting in aggregate savings to consumers of approximately $1 million per year,” PPI Executive Director Peter Wagner wrote in a March 9 letter to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.

Advocates argue that lowering the cost of jail phone calls is critical to allowing incarcerated individuals more access to their attorneys, family and friends, contact which advocates say is vital for the rehabilitation of inmates and the wellbeing of their loved ones.

In filings with the IUB in support of cutting the phone rates, staff from the Iowa Office of Consumer Advocate quoted from federal rulings arguing that “excessive rates” undercut communication with inmates and their families “with substantial and damaging social consequences.”

“Inmates’ families may be forced to choose between putting food on the table or paying hundreds of dollars each month to keep in touch. When incarcerated parents lack regular contact with their children, those children—2.7 million of them nationwide—have higher rates of truancy, depression and poor school performance,” reads a filing from July of 2020.

On Tuesday, the IUB unanimously approved revised tariffs for three companies, Prodigy Solutions, Network Communications International Corp., and Inmate Calling Solutions, LLC.

The IUB’s Cecil Wright told board members Tuesday that reduced rates are now in place for every service provider the agency has been able to identify, but there may be some last remaining contracts from companies that haven’t yet proposed lowering their Iowa rates.

“So we have completed review and there are tariffs in place for all of the inmate calling service providers that we identified,” Wright said. “We’ve found several counties where there are no inmate calling service providers. And we’re going to be back around asking the board to maybe allow us to investigate that to see if there are other inmate calling service providers out there who have not filed tariffs.”

According to a PPI analysis, there are two companies serving jails in seven Iowa counties that have not submitted new rates: Lattice and Turnkey.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter