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Prison board to review inmate phone charges

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Some members of the Blair County Prison Board are interested in learning more about the difference in inmate phone call charges linked to the introduction of a new phone system.

Deputy Warden Abbie Tate, who said the new system is more reliable and doesn’t disconnect in the midst of a call like the old system, said she has asked for information from the new company about its rates.

In July, the county ended its contract with GTL of Reston, Va., and authorized installation of a system offered by Encartele, an inmate telephone company headquartered in Omaha, Neb.

Don Peeler, compliance counselor with Encartele, said he is interested in addressing any complaints linked to the system that was subject to negotiation,

“If there’s a concern,” Peeler said, “we’re willing to look into this and see what can be done.”

Peeler said he didn’t know what the former company was charging so he couldn’t say how much difference there might be in the rates.

“I know we proposed a rate accepted by the county,” Peeler said. “If they want to drop them back, we could do that … but we also offered them some new technology as part of this … which was all subject to negotiation.”

A representative for the Blair County chapter of the Pennsylvania Prison Society told the prison board Thursday that her group received an anonymous complaint from the mother of an inmate who said the county’s decision to switch telephone system providers has doubled what it costs for her to talk with her son.

“I am afraid that if he does not talk to me, bad things could happen to him,” the mother said in her letter where she called the new phone charges ridiculous and asked the prison society for help.

“Please put pressure on these greedy people to get our phone rates lowered to at least where they were before the switch,” she said.

Commissioner Terry Tomassetti said he, too, received a letter with the same complaint and asking that the decision to change providers be reconsidered.

Tate said that when the new system was introduced in July, she heard a lot of complaints during the first week, but they’ve since declined.

“We’re not getting flooded with complaints,” Warden Michael Johnston told the prison board.

Tomassetti and Comm­issioner Bruce Erb showed interest in knowing more, and Tate said she is in contact with Encartele personnel and will assemble some information.

Tate also said during the prison board meeting and afterward that the company’s rates must fall within limits permitted by the Federal Communication Comm­ission.

While the FCC continues to cap rates on inmate phone calls that cross state lines, a federal appeals court ruled 2-1 in June that the FCC has no authority to cap the cost of inmate phone calls within a state. The court concluded that such authority rests with a state based on the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

Peeler said Encartel did not increase phone call rates as a result of that court ruling.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.

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