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Proposal would give Monroe County inmates free phone calls 

click to enlarge Monroe County Sheriff Todd Baxter discusses opioid overdose data for 2019 during a March 5, 2020, news conference.

PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI

Monroe County Sheriff Todd Baxter discusses opioid overdose data for 2019 during a March 5, 2020, news conference.

Inmates in Monroe County custody would get a “limited number” of free phone calls every month under legislation submitted by County Executive Adam Bello.

The legislation, which Bello introduced at the request of Sheriff Todd Baxter, would modify a five year contract the county has with Securus Technologies to operate the inmate phone systems at the Monroe County Jail and the Anthony P. Meloni S.T.A.R. Academy, formerly the Monroe County Correctional Facility.

Under the proposal, which legislators will discuss during a meeting Thursday, each inmate would receive an unspecified number of calls cost-free. The county would cover the expense of those calls with commissions Securus contractually owes the county. The vendor will still maintain collect call services for the inmates, so the county would receive commissions on any calls beyond the ones it pays for.

If the price of free calls outweighs the commissions, the calls would be funded out of the jail Telephone Trust Fund, which receives the county’s cut of revenue from the phone calls; in 2019 the fund held $3.4 million. The legislation said the free calls would ultimately come at no net cost to the county.

In December, Baxter announced a temporary reprieve for inmates facing phone bills. Inmates in the Monroe County Jail were allotted two 15-minute phone calls and one 30-minute phone call at no cost that month.

Undersheriff Korey Brown said the new proposal is meant to make the December policy permanent. While no set number of calls is given in the legislation, Brown said he said they are aiming for three 15-minute phone calls and a monthly 30-minute video call every month.

"The whole purpose of this is to make it so we have the ability to decide how many free calls an inmate gets, and still be able to pay Securus, so that they still get paid for it," Brown said.

In November 2019, the Monroe County legislature approved a measure that lowered the cost of local jail calls to a flat rate of 10 cents per minute. The county receives a 78.5 percent commission on each call and the money is placed into the trust fund. That means a 15-minute phone call would cost $1.50, of which $1.18 would be returned to the county.

The county lowered the rates by awarding a five year contract to Securus and separating from Global Tel*Link, the county’s former vendor and a main competitor of Securus, which began operating in Monroe County in May 2020.

The Telephone Trust Fund is used to fund a variety of jail capital projects and resources. For example, in 2019 Baxter said a portion of the proceeds from the fund, which then held about $3.4 million, would be used to purchase “safety blankets,” a type of blanket used to prevent inmate suicides.

The legislation, which Bello submitted to the County Legislature on Feb. 18, could be voted on in March.

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or gino@rochester-citynews.com.

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