Parents say calls cost too much

The state collected almost $377,000 in commissions so far this year.
COLUMBUS (AP) -- Some parents of juvenile inmates are complaining about racking up hefty phone bills as they try to keep in touch with their children in prison.
Surcharges for collect calls from the state's eight juvenile prisons range from $1.75 to $2.50, with additional per-minute charges as high as 36 cents. Juvenile inmates must make their collect calls through the Department of Youth Services' telephone carrier, Verizon Business. Prepaid phone cards sold commercially aren't allowed.
Parents and advocates say the charges are too much to pay for inmates to talk to their families, especially when the prisons are far from home and families can't afford to visit regularly. In the first four months of this year, the state received 59 phone-related complaints, according to a report issued by the state Legislature's Correctional Institution Inspection Committee.
"These aren't adults; these are kids and they are going to get out someday and go back to their families," said Kim Brooks Tandy, director of the Children's Law Center, an advocacy group in Covington, Ky. "We're essentially cutting them off from that contact."
Response from state
The state -- which gets a 49.5 percent commission on the calls -- defends the policy, noting that prepaid rates are offered at a 20 percent discount.
"The department works very hard to make sure that the rates of those phone calls are something that isn't too harsh on the family," spokeswoman Andrea Kruse said. "We work very hard to get the lowest rate possible."
The state has collected nearly $377,000 so far this year in commissions, she said. The money is used to buy stamps and school supplies, and to pay for college entrance exams and rent for children when they are released, she said.
Parent Maria Santiago of Cleveland said it's less expensive to accept collect calls from family in Puerto Rico than from her 16-year-old son in the Scioto Juvenile Correctional Facility. She refused to sign up for a prepaid plan, which made her son angry, she said.
"It puts parents in a tough position," Santiago said.
Ralph and Dorothy Sharpe of Stark County in Northeast Ohio said they were hit with a $6,000 bill after accepting twice-a-day calls from their son, Burt.
"It was something that I needed, to be able to talk to my family, to be able to get through my day-to-day life there," said Burt, who was released last month.
Some families stop communicating with the inmates because it's too expensive, said Jill Beeler of the Ohio Public Defender's office.
"What ends up happening is these parents get these large phone bills and they can't pay them, so the phone company will put a block on their phone," she said. "It's very hard to maintain contact when it should be something that's promoted, something that's a piece of rehabilitation."

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