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Government, Politics & Issues

St. Louis County Inmate Tablet Contract On Hold While Council Reviews Bidding Process

St. Louis County jail
File photo
The St. Louis County Council is reviewing a contract to provide tablets to inmates after a complaint was made about its bidding process.

The St. Louis County Council is taking more time to review a contract to provide tablets to inmates after a complaint from the jail’s current vendor about the bidding process.

But Council Chairwoman Lisa Clancy, D-Maplewood, said she has yet to find any wrongdoing.

“I’m still doing my due diligence to make sure this is a sound recommendation, but so far, I have a lot of confidence in this process,” Clancy said. “This is a [bidding process] that prioritizes lowering and eliminating fees on people in the justice center, and that’s a good direction to go in.” 

Inmate Calling Solutions has provided the jail’s inmate communication services since 2007 but is currently operating on an expired contract. The company alleges that the county unfairly tentatively awarded its new jail communications contract to a competing firm, Securus Technologies. 

Inmate Calling Solutions President Tim McAteer asked the council to hold off on approving the proposed Securus contract that includes phones, video conferencing and tablets for inmates until the bidding process is reviewed. 

“I would advise you not to vote for this thing until you really check this out, because there are a lot of problems here,” McAteer said. 

Alexander Lee, an attorney for Inmate Calling Solutions, said in a letter to the county council that Securus appears to have been given an advantage because it intends to provide tablets to the inmates, something the county said it wasn’t interested in from vendors.

McAteer and Lee also said Inmate Calling Solutions had offered a much cheaper rate for calls than Securus did, which should have given it a significant advantage in the bidding process. But Clancy disputed this claim, calling it a mischaracterization of what was proposed.

County Executive Sam Page’s office declined to answer questions about the bidding process Tuesday. An ordinance known as the “cone of silence” that passed last year in response to former County Executive Steve Stenger’s contracting scandal prevented the office from answering questions about the contract until it is finalized, said Doug Moore, Page’s spokesman. 

During a Justice Services Advisory Board meeting Jan. 22, Jail Director Raul Banasco said the new contract would include tablets that inmates could use to communicate with their families but also to access the law library and education programs. But Lee said his company was explicitly told that the county was not interested in tablets for inmates on March 22, during an exchange with county officials over the contract bidding process. 

Tablets may have not been mentioned in the county’s request for bids, but that doesn’t mean a company couldn’t include them in its proposal, Clancy said. 

Councilman Tim Fitch said it was the right call for the county to hold off on taking up the contract, given the questions raised by Lee. He worries the county might be sued if it moves forward with the Securus agreement.

“There’s no hurry to approve this contract. We have an existing agreement that’s still in effect,” he said. 

Under the proposed contract before the council, Securus would provide communication services in the jail for five years at no cost to the county, according to a letter from Page to the county council earlier this month. 

The company would make money by charging the inmates directly for services, which is common. The rates would be just under 5 cents per minute for calls and 10 cents per minute for video conferencing. There would be an option to extend this contract by one or two years, Page said in his letter. 

The county is also forgoing its cut of the money from jail phone calls and video conferencing in order to keep the cost down for the inmates. Currently, every time an inmate makes a phone call, the county earns a commission. But Page has been pushing to eliminate fees on inmate jail services in general, including communication with family and loved ones, since he took over as county executive in April. 

“Unlike St. Louis County’s previous telecommunications contracts, this [contract] prioritized treating incarcerated people and their families fairly, promoting public safety and reducing recidivism,” Page wrote. “Reducing costs to family members ensures that even financially struggling families can communicate with their incarcerated loved ones.” 

If the Securus contract goes through, Page said St. Louis County would have the lowest rates for inmate phone calls and video conferencing in all of Missouri and some of the lowest in the country. The city of St. Louis charges 20 cents per minute for a phone call — four times as much as St. Louis County would charge under the new contract, Page said. 

Jail communications has been lucrative in the past. County staff said inmate phones produced over a million dollars in gross revenue last year, according to documents provided to the council. Page said five companies in total bid for the contract. 

Follow Julie on Twitter: @jsodonoghue

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