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Report: Berrien Co. has highest jail phone rate in the nation

Studies indicate that outcomes are better for people when they’re able to stay connected to loved ones while incarcerated.
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Studies indicate that outcomes are better for people when they’re able to stay connected to loved ones while incarcerated.

It’s expensive to communicate while incarcerated. And the Berrien County Jail is the most expensive place in the nation to make calls.

That’s according to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative, which tracks the cost of jail and prison phone calls, and advocates for policies to bring down those costs. Its latest report looked at phone rates through 2021. It found that people incarcerated at the Berrien County Jail paid at least 3.5 times more than people held in other county jails in Michigan.

Studies indicate that outcomes are better for people when they’re able to stay connected to loved ones while incarcerated, and advocacy groups like PPI say the cost of staying in touch with family and friends in prison and jail is often unreasonably high.

“If you look at all the jails in the entire country that we have information for, Berrien County has the single highest phone rate charged to any consumer: $16.50 for a 15-minute call,” said PPI spokesperson Wanda Bertram.

It cost families $1.10 a minute to communicate with their loved ones locked up in Berrien County in 2021, according to PPI. That compares to 30 cents a minute in Montmorency and Barry counties, which had the state’s next-highest rate. Families in Wayne County, which has by far the state’s largest jail population, paid 28 cents a minute.

Berrien and Wayne counties both contracted with ViaPath (formerly Global Tel*Link) to provide communication services to incarcerated individuals in 2021. (Wayne County has since changed its provider. Its current communications contract is with Telmate.)

Phone and email messages to the Berrien County Sheriff were not returned before publication.

Read more from Michigan Radio’s Beenish Ahmed about jail phone contracts and the effects of high call costs

The report also puts Michigan among the most-expensive states for prison phone calls, at $2.10 for a 15-minute call in 2021. (Prisons are administered by the state; jails are administered by counties. The state and individual counties negotiate their own contracts for communications.)

Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz called the report “false, misleading and poorly sourced.” He said earlier this year, MDOC announced a nearly 40% reduction in phone rates, putting a 15-minute call at $1.31.

“We take seriously this effort to reduce (the rates of) these calls and recognize ... that staying in touch with loved ones and the communities they will return to is incredibly important,” Gautz wrote in an email, adding that there is “an incredible amount of behind-the-scenes security work that goes into these calls” to monitor for criminal activity.

The PPI report notes that costs for both prison and jail calls have come down over the past several years. That’s in part because of regulatory actions taken by the Federal Communications Commission.

A bill on its way to President Biden’s desk could offer further relief to incarcerated individuals and their loved ones. It would give the FCC more authority to regulate the cost of calls in correctional facilities.

Copyright 2023 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.

Sarah Hulett became Michigan Radio's assistant news director in August 2011. For five years she was the station's Detroit reporter, and contributed to several reporting projects that won state and national awards.
Beenish Ahmed is one of Michigan Radio's Detroit-based reporters. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast. Additionally, Beenish spent two years in Islamabad, Pakistan, working with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, covering the country’s first democratic transition of power as well as Pakistan's education system.