Calling from Alaska jails? It’s complicated.

Ketchikan Correctional Center. (Alaska Department of Corrections photo)
Ketchikan Correctional Center. (Alaska Department of Corrections photo)

When someone gets arrested, often the first thing they’ll want to do is make a call. If it’s to a lawyer or legal aid, no problem. However, if it’s to friends, family or an employer, it’s more complicated.

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When an inmate at the Ketchikan Correctional Center wants to place a call, there are some rules. They can call lawyers without cost or much restraint, but calls to family or employers are allowed in 15-minute time slots and on the jail’s terms.

“So what happens is, if an inmate wants to contact family, they give a list of numbers that they want to have on their approved list, and they’re able to call out. And it’s set up and designed to only be landlines.”

That’s KCC’s superintendent, Jessica Mathews. She says this is a way to make sure possible victims are safe from harassment. While local calls around Ketchikan are free, Mathews says inmates families have to pay for long-distance calls to their landlines through Securus, a company contracted through the state.

What happens is an inmate can place one call to a long-distance landline. After that talk, the call’s receiver, maybe a mom or a significant other, gets a bill from Securus for the call and options to open a payable account for future calls.

If they don’t pay or can’t pay, the prisoner can no longer call that number.

Alaska’s system is actually cheaper than in much of the United States where Securus does not allow free local calls.

But Alaska is one of the few places that doesn’t allow calls from prisons to cellphones. Mathews says that’s how the contract with Securus is written.

“There’s glitches with that and people circumvent the rules for that, but that’s the way the system is set up. In the future, Securus wants to try to include cellphones in that process but right now the contract doesn’t authorize that. “

Alaska Department of Corrections spokeswoman Sherrie Daigle said in a statement that DOC’s procurement team and contract overseers were working on a changing the contract between Alaskan public correctional facilities and Securus, but it may take time.

In that time, no-cellphone policy could disproportionately hurt those who already are having a hard time. A July 2014 Pew Research Survey found that those with lower incomes and those in minority racial groups have a far greater probability of having only cellphones instead of landlines.

Assistant Public Defender Jay Hochberg says many in Ketchikan’s jail are part of that group and couldn’t afford a lawyer without Public Defenders.

“The number in this community runs over 80%. Over 80% of folks will receive a public defender.”

Hochberg also notes that the most KCC inmates haven’t been convicted and are presumed innocent.

“The vast majority of the folks at our local jail are pre-trial. Across the state, I think it’s about 50-50 at the moment, sentenced prisoners vs pre-trial detainees. And all across America, it is slightly more than 50% if you look at all state and local jails together of folks who are in jail not because they’ve been adjudicated or proved as wrongdoers, but because they simply are impoverished or otherwise don’t have access to the cash bail.”

KRBD reached out to Securus, but was unable to talk with a representative. The company did provide links on how to call in the Lower 48 from a prison center to cell phones, but not much else.

Matthews says if people don’t want to pay the calling fees, or don’t want their family to have to pay them, it’s best to just do it the old-fashioned way.

“Generally what we would encourage people to do is to come visit or to write…And they can certainly, you know, their family has access to a landline. There’s always a landline somewhere. So they can certainly do that. And sometimes that’s just the unfortunate consequence of being in custody.”

Matthews says that this system works here in Ketchikan, and she hasn’t had too many complaints, but this could be because there’s a fast turnover, with an average 30-day stay at KCC.

If inmates are convicted, they are usually sent to Juneau or Anchorage. There, they would still have to use Securus and would be under similar calling rules.  They are also often away from home at that point and most calls to family and friends will be charged. The new FCC maximum rates for those calls are at $0.21 per minute for collect and $0.25 per minute for pre-paid or debit calls.