The state's plan to charge a $2 fee for local phone calls made by inmates at state prisons is out of line.
The state wants to begin charging the fee to whoever accepts the call -- families, bail bondsmen, friends, private defense attorneys, or whoever.
That's not good for the inmates, or for society at large. It's in everyone's best interests for inmates to stay connected with their support system outside of prisons, jails and halfway houses. The $2 fee stands in the way of that. Families of inmates, who may already be strapped for cash, should not be penalized for staying in touch with an inmate.
It's true, some inmates abuse their phone privileges with nuisance calls to people who don't want to hear their complaints. Charging recipients $2 per completed call won't stop inmates from making those pesky calls, though.
Even now, every outgoing call is preceded by a disclaimer, saying it comes from jail. The recipient can refuse it -- which avoids any fee. The unwanted call doesn't cost anybody any money, but it is an annoyance, which may happen again and again and again.
Corrections facilities definitely need a better way to deter nuisance calls. The current phone system allows the jail to block outgoing calls that are bound for witnesses and victims. Other innocent parties should be able to get on the no-calls-from-jail list.
Until recently, state jails actually made a little bit of money from the inmate phone system, through charges on inmates' long-distance calls. A contractor runs the prison phone system, which includes the call-blocking and call-recording features, and shared some of the revenue with the state. The state collected about $16,000 a month.
But no more.
When the previous, profitable phone contract expired, the state asked vendors to submit bids that did not include charging for local calls, corrections official Richard Schmitz said. No one bid.
So the state said it would allow the fee and did another round of bidding. Evercom, the current provider, was the only bidder.
The fee was to take effect Sept. 1, but the Regulatory Commission of Alaska delayed it until mid-September, and is holding a hearing Sept. 11 on whether it should be allowed.
The RCA will be judging whether the fee is "just and reasonable."
But even if it passes RCA inspection, the state should not charge $2 per local phone call. It's too much. If the state wants to charge 25 cents or so, that would be more acceptable.
Under the new contract, the prison phone service will no longer pay for itself, while netting extra money for the state. Perhaps the state will have to chip in some money to keep the phone rates reasonable. Neither the state nor the phone contractor should be squeezing big profits from the prison system's captive market.
Oil spill case by the numbers
$5 billion -- Amount of punitive damages awarded by Anchorage jury in 1994 for the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.
14 -- Years that have passed since that $5 billion verdict.
2 -- Years that passed between the first verdict and Exxon's first appeal in 1996.
5 -- Years that plaintiffs' attorney David Oesting estimated in 1996 that it would take to finish the appeals process.
3,000 -- Lower end estimate of the number of original plaintiffs who have died since the 1994 verdict.
33,000 -- Approximate number of plaintiffs remaining today.
$11.68 billion -- Exxon Mobil's profit for the second quarter of 2008.
$90,000 -- Exxon's profit per minute during the second quarter.
$507 million -- Amount of punitive damages decided by US Supreme Court in June 2008 (10 percent of 1994 verdict).
$383 million -- Amount of punitive damages Exxon has agreed to pay to plaintiffs in 2008 (7.7 percent of 1994 verdict).
Sources: Anchorage Daily News; New York Times; David Oesting