Jails are NOT profit centers, and people in custody are not slaves. Privatization of jail system phones and commissary has resulted in overcharging inmates, and a lucrative revenue source for the County Jail. This has incentivized the County to expand with MORE jail space and additional profit centers.
A vital role of government is operating jails to protect us from convicted criminals and punish them for their crimes. Operating a jail is expensive, but it is a vital expense. Security, risk, housing, feeding, transporting, and everything involved costs more due to the nature of the environment. But Contra Costa County Jails should not be profiting from the inmates it confines. As a criminal defense attorney here in Contra Costa, I am passionate about the rights of my clients and all accused of crimes.
The Contra Costa Jail is not a prison to punish serious offenders. It’s primary role is to house INNOCENT people pre-trial, as they await their day in court. In fact, in 78% of County jail detainees are awaiting trial. These are people who could not make bail and are in the jail awaiting their day in court. Remember our justice system is based around the presumption of innocence, “Innocent until proven Guilty”. Pre-sentence inmates are milked like revenue cows to make money for the County. Every phone call made and every item purchased in the commissary is sold at significant markup and profit for the jail. Consider that an inmate too indigent to afford bail is doubly hurt by up-charging him for phone or commissary.
Contra Costa County takes in over $1.5MILLION a year from inmate revenue. Granted, this money is spent on inmate welfare and services: Library, Chaplain, hygiene, recreation, TV, etc. But these are services the jail would otherwise need to provide anyway. That’s like an airline charging you for a seatbelt! It is a profit center that hurts the most vulnerable at the most difficult time in their lives. And remember that more than THREE QUARTERS of these revenue farmed detainees are still presumed innocent and awaiting trial.
The commissary is operated by Trinity Services Group. They sell a 4oz bottle of shampoo to inmates for a very reasonable 97¢. Then things get very unreasonable. In order to deposit money in an inmate’s account, there is a minimum $3.50 fee assessed to the deposit. Sales tax is applied. And an additional $4.95 delivery fee is added to complete the transaction. So the reasonable 97¢ for a 4oz. bottle of shampoo ends up costing more than $6.01.
The phone system is a worse offender, going beyond usury into violating civil rights. The Detention Facility inmate telephone service is provided by Global Tel*Link. They collect fees, connect the calls, and record the calls made from inmates to others. As covered by justice group Nation Inside, Intrastate calls cost $3.25 for the first minute, plus .25 for each additional minute. The County gets a kickback commission payment of up to 57% on GTL calls.
Unless an attorney has provided a written request on letterhead to Custody Services Bureau, Main Detention Facility, 1000 Ward Street, Martinez, CA 94553, the attorney client call will be recorded and available for live monitoring. Detainees have no expectation of privacy, and the DA can listen to all calls EXCEPT the few that are on the pre-approved Attorney list. THese calls make money for the jail, and provide a rich source of evidence that can be eavesdropped or replayed in violation of attorney client privilege. You can see why the County loves this vendor relationship, and is constantly seeking to expand it. How many people have been jailed due to the County listening in to private conversations that should not have been recorded and saved forever. How many inmates have been coerced into false confessions based on innocent information shared on GTL phones? Imagine a jailer coaxing an inmate to falsly confess or take a bad plea deal if he wants to see his sick grandma, or watch his baby be born. This info has nothing to do with crime or jail safety, yet is available for the County to access and use.
These issues are not isolated locally, but widespread across jails and prisons nationwide.
Even prisoners have rights. But more importantly, and relevant to my interests as a criminal defense attorney, those accused of crimes have rights and deserve fair treatment and a fair trial. When jails are looking at Revenue rather than Justice, the system cracks open with conflicts and problems.