Charles Taylor is a retiree living on Social Security and frowns when he visits the Morgan County Jail. The 77-year-old Hartselle resident has a loved one incarcerated there, and Taylor regularly feeds $20 bills into the inmate vending account kiosk in the lobby.
“I put in about $100 a week,” he said. That allows his family member behind bars to make phone calls and purchase items from the jail commissary. Each time Taylor and others put money into the kiosk at the county jail, there’s a $2.95 service charge. At Lawrence County Jail, it’s a $3 fee.
“That fee hurts my wallet. I’m on a fixed income,” Taylor said. “I want to know why it has to be so much.”
Law enforcement and county officials say the explanation for the fee is simple.
“It’s a convenience fee,” said Lawrence County Sheriff Max Sanders, who compared it to using an ATM at a bank. “There’s fees associated with the convenience.”
Inmates also face a charge for phone usage. They can make calls at 21 cents a minute from the Morgan jail and 20 cents a minute from the Lawrence lockup. Jail officials say those calls are recorded and monitored. “We usually have one jailer who monitors the six phones we have
in the jail,” Sanders said.
Morgan County Commission Chairman Ray Long takes a harder stance
on why the fees are placed on inmates and their families.
“Every time a person goes to jail, the average taxpaying citizen is being penalized,” he said. “We have to fund that jail. The jail is full of criminals. The average citizen is out there working to fund that. The inmate needs to have to pay some of their own costs.”
He said inmates have secure places to live and are locked up for a reason. Sometimes they are serving time for a crime. Some haven’t been convicted of the charges they face but aren’t able to afford bail.
“The average citizen should not have to furnish that inmate meals, phone, TV,” Long said. “A lot of times there are benefits to being an inmate. You don’t have to work to pay for anything. Everybody should have to pay their own way. The jail is a cost and an expense to the citizens of this county. There’s no way around it, you’ve got to have them. Inmates need to pay something.”
He said loved ones footing those bills aren’t forced to pay anything.
“I would urge those family members to help them obey the law, do what is right. The best way for inmates to avoid paying fees and phone costs is to do right. Follow the law and stay out of jail,” he said. “In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need jails.”
The Morgan County Jail contracts with IC Solutions on inmate phone services. Long said IC Solutions, a member of the Keefe Group based in San Antonio, set the 21 cents-per-minute rate on phone calls. “IC offered us the lowest rate per minute and was the cheapest for us,” he said.
The jail fees add up quickly and Long said they help offset the cost of running the lockup. The fiscal 2020 Morgan County general fund budget is $25.8 million. The jail budget alone is $6.05 million, or about 23% of the general fund.
More than $350,000 of the annual budget is generated through inmate phone fees, Long said.
“The Sheriff’s Office and jail budgets come out of the general fund, so a good portion of the money we receive for the general fund goes right back to the jail and sheriff,” he said.
IC Solutions did not respond to a request for the total amount of calls made or money brought in through inmate calls.
Long said inmates’ loved ones can visit the jail and chat with them at no charge a couple of days a week. “Phone service is a luxury,” Long said. “Nobody has a constitutional right to talk on the phone.”
In Lawrence County, inmates are given one phone call at no charge, authorities said. Additionally, Chief Deputy Tim Sandlin said, “We have a program for those who can’t afford the phone calls that allows them to call at no cost.”
Sanders also talked about phone calls being a privilege, not a right inmates have.
“It’s a privilege to call a family member,” he said. “Visitation up here is every Saturday and Sunday. They can come here and visit free of charge.”
The Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office keeps profits from both the phone service and commissary. The phone service provider, Combined Public Communications of Cold Spring, Kentucky, did not respond to a request for information on how much money the jail generates.
Haynes, a disabled Army veteran from Athens, said he has spent more than $75 on the Morgan jail service fees the past few months. He said he is disappointed with the jail’s policy that family members can’t bring clothes, socks or T-shirts to be delivered to the inmate. The clothes must be purchased from the jail commissary, said Haynes, 58.
“It’s $3 every time I put money in that machine. I feel like if the prices were fair it would be better,” he said.
He said he didn’t know the prices of socks and T-shirts in the commissary. Neither did Swafford. But the sheriff’s spokesman said “our profit margin runs around 27-33%” on commissary items. Swafford did not have a figure from the commissary proceeds that goes into the Sheriff’s Office discretionary fund. The money in that account doesn’t need commission oversight, but must be used for law enforcement and jail operations, Long said.
Morgan Sheriff Ron Puckett said items are priced in line with stores on the outside.
“We don’t try to be a Walmart, but we’re competitive with the convenience store prices,” he said. “Commissary usage is optional for inmates. However, the funds it generates takes some of the burden off of taxpayers.”
Sandlin said the Lawrence department receives about $1,900 a month from commissary proceeds and $1,400 a month from phone fees.
He, too, said commissary prices mirror those found in convenience stores. A quick look at the prices from the Moulton Marathon store and the county jail show similar prices.
A 20-ounce Mountain Dew at Moulton Marathon costs $1.79, and at the jail costs $1.83. A Snickers candy bar at Moulton Marathon is $1.29, and at the jail is $1.19. Skoal Longcut Wintergreen at Moulton Marathon is priced at $3.79, and at the county jail is $4.28.
Inmates at both county jails order commissary items on kiosks inside the secured areas by inputting their personal jail number to access their account. The funds in their account come from money deposited by friends or loved ones after the $3 service fee. The inmate orders the items and a couple of days later they will be delivered. In the Lawrence County Jail, orders must be placed on the kiosk by 10:30 p.m. Monday and will be distributed sometime Wednesday.
Also on Fridays at the Lawrence County Jail, inmates can buy a “snack pack,” which includes four packs of noodles, two packs of cookies, crackers, two bags of potato chips and three packages of powdered flavor drinks for $10.30.
“There’s a cost involved. Our jailer still has to deliver it,” Sandlin said. “It ties up a jailer to distribute it; it doesn’t come out of a vending machine. We see the commissary as a great tool to offset some of the burden on the taxpayers and it helps cut down on contraband coming into the jail.”
He said the money from the commissary and phone usage is used for inmate uniforms, rubber shoes, restraints, communications and transportation of the inmates.
In 2018, the daily average number of inmates in the Lawrence County Jail was 161, Sanders said, noting the jail is designed to house 128 inmates.
Kimbles Commissary Services, of LaGrange, Georgia, has the contract with both the Lawrence and Morgan County jails. The company did not respond to questions for this article.