Bill 99-36 proposes to create a revolving fund using revenue collected from telephone services within the Department of Corrections in order to provide no-cost phone services to inmates or detainees.
However, the Bureau of Budget and Management Research stated they cannot locate a revenue account specific to telephone services within the general fund in the government’s AS400 financial system.
Speaker Therese Terlaje, during Wednesday’s public hearing on Bill 99, stated all she could find was DOC contract language involving commission - that 15% of net revenues generated by coin-less pay telephones shall be remitted, as well as 10% of net revenues from coin-operated pay telephones.
While Stephen Hattori, the executive director of the Public Defender Service Corp., stated only the Department of Administration could answer the question about the telephone revenues, Terlaje said without that information, the Legislature can’t tell if there’s any money to work with for the bill.
Sen. Joe San Agustin, who heads the committee overseeing appropriations, said he has no information about the revenues but wasn’t surprised they could not be found.
“There’s many things that go through the government that some people can’t even figure where the money’s at. This bill would actually fix it, to identify it,” San Agustin said.
“(The bill is) saying we’re going to fund this program out of this money, and if this money is not available, then we’re not solving the issue,” Terlaje said.
Hattori commented during the hearing that it appeared DOC had an exclusive contract with Pay Tel for telephone services. Prior to the pandemic, clients could call court-appointed attorneys using the control phone in each cellblock. But due to COVID-19 safety concerns, the cellblock phone has been reserved for use within the facility and mainly for emergency purposes.
Indigent clients have been required to purchase Pay Tel minutes to exercise their right to speak to an attorney, he added. But Hattori said they preferred Pay Tel over the control phones because it is more private.
The PDSC submitted proposals to DOC, including setting up a hotline to the PDSC, but DOC quickly shot down the idea during a meeting.
“We just thought it would be a matter of splitting up one of those Pay Tel phone lines. But apparently, they’re not able to do it. Something about the buildings are so old, they would have to retrofit them,” Hattori said.
Another initiative is to set up additional computers for inmates to meet with attorneys remotely. Hattori said PDSC is eyeing a grant and hoping to set up three or four more platforms to meet with clients.
“Personally, I think all they need to do is set up a giant Wi-Fi hub, put 10 Facebook portals that cost $150 each in their current visitation center and then they can allow at least video visitation with their family members and their attorneys,” Hattori said. “We’re trying to get there. Hopefully we’ll reach that point.”
Terlaje said that sounded like a great solution, but still wanted to determine if the money to fund Bill 99 exists.
Both PDSC and the Alternate Public Defender supported Bill 99 Wednesday.
Because clients needed to purchase Pay Tel minutes to speak to their attorneys, the PDSC worked with Pay Tel and DOC to set up a toll-free account at the start of the year.
The system worked well but Hattori said they didn’t have the funding to make it permanent. The average cost was $400 per month for all clients. BBMR listed the average as per client, but Hattori clarified otherwise. It might cost another $400 per month for the Alternate Public Defender and additional costs for indigent clients appointed private attorneys, according to Hattori.
It is appropriate that Bill 99 is funded by toll calls generated by the prison population, he added.