Investigations

Kentucky jails and county governments made $9.6 million off payments for phone calls and other services in their jails during the 2020 fiscal year and nearly $900,000 in telecom contract “signing bonuses” since 2010, according to a survey conducted by Kentucky Auditor of Public Accounts Mike Harmon.

Harmon’s “data bulletin” about telecoms contracts with local jails cited concerns that the industry norm of selecting the vendor who offers governments the biggest cut of their proceeds — called commissions — also incentivizes companies to charge as much money as possible for their services.

Harmon said these potentially competing interests highlight the need for additional legislative guidance for correctional facilities in Kentucky.

“Is the goal of these contracts to bring the most revenue to jails, so that they can offset cost to the taxpayers?” Harmon asked. “Is the role to provide the best services at the lowest cost to the inmates? Or is it a combination of the two?”

Harmon’s survey focused on local and regional jails, and did not include state prisons run by the Kentucky Department of Corrections. A Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting story published this week found the DOC received $3.2 million last year in phone commissions from contractor Securus Technologies, and negotiated a contract with a $4.1 million, one-time supplemental payment last summer.

Securus and two other Kentucky-based entities — Combined Public Communications and CyberPath Services —  hold the majority of the locally-run jail contracts.

Harmon said the survey his office conducted consisted of records requests filed with local jails and was intended to “serve as a tool” for jailers, the General Assembly and public officials “as we work to try to bring clarity to these new types of revenues.”

Harmon, who announced Monday he’s running for governor, suggested that lawmakers should pass legislation to improve oversight of these contracts.

Executive Director of the Kentucky Jailers Association Renee McDaniel could not be reached for comment.  The jailers association president and Campbell County jailer, James Daley, has not yet responded to an emailed request for comment.

What’s In The Data Bulletin

Harmon’s release says that the contracts “have become a newly developed source of revenue” for Kentucky’s county jails, which have increasingly engaged in contracts to provide other services besides phone calls, such as video calling, emails and texting. 

Harmon says that’s good: It keeps people connected to friends and family on the outside in new ways.

But there’s a catch: The new products are expensive, and families spend a lot of money on keeping in touch. That was especially true during the coronavirus pandemic, when people called more than ever or turned to new forms of communication with visitation suspended. 

There are also few laws governing how the contracts ought to be structured.

His survey found some jailers using “verbal” contracts, expired contracts or contracts signed without a formal bid process. The terms often included “technology grants” that were left open to interpretation, a one-time “signing bonus,” lines of credit for capital improvements and other incentive payments.

Among the expenditures jails reported using the technology grants for, according the Harmon’s report:

  • “Mats and clothing for inmates” and other “miscellaneous expenses” at the Adair County Regional Jail
  • $100,000 for “Reimbursement of Assistant County Attorney salary and benefits” as well equipment in Henderson County Detention Center
  • “Various operating expenditures, including K-9, jail vehicle, weapons, mats for inmates,” as well as showers for people serving state sentences, in Muhlenberg County.

Jasmine Heiss, the director of a Vera Institute’s project about mass incarceration in rural areas of the country, said that these types of payments can shift the cost of running governments to people who can least afford such a burden.

“If there is a legitimate service that the criminal justice system is providing to uphold the dignity of incarcerated people, then that should be a fully funded function of government and of the criminal legal system, not something that they try to fund on the backs of the poorest people in their counties,” Heiss said.


Contact Jared Bennett at 502-814-6543 or jbennett@kycir.org.

Correction: Jails received nearly $900,000 in signing bonuses since 2010. The time frame was incorrect in a previous version of this story.