ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. (KMOV.com) -- In the wake of several inmate deaths at the St. Louis County jail recently, officials have vowed to make big changes.
But some people say one proposed policy was going in the wrong direction.
“It’s preying on poor families, for money, more money,” said Angie Zorich. Zorich has sued the county on other issues, but says she feels for families with loved ones incarcerated. Her son spent time in the County Justice Center.
“It was a terrible time for me. Those days he was in jail, they were very scary,” she said.
But she says just trying to stay in touch cost her hundreds of dollars.
“I was upset by how much it cost, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ I have been trying to come up with money to get him out of jail,” Zorich said.
In light of the recent inmate deaths, families say they're even more anxious to call or see their loved ones on the inside.
But new technology to do so, experts say, often costs families even more.
“St. Louis County, we think, is currently going in the wrong direction,” said Wanda Bertram with the Prison Policy Initiative.
Bertram’s organization studied the costs of jail phone calls all over the country.
In Missouri and Illinois, they found a 15 minute call could range from $3.15 to more than $20.
“It’s not a poor woman’s fault if her spouse or her son or her mom ends up in jail, right?” Bertram said.
Bertram said one provider in particular, Securus Technologies, stands out.
Securus had been selected as the vendor for a new contract in St. Louis County.
Under the proposed contract, as advertised on Securus' website, inmates would have access to tablets and video chat in addition to traditional phone calls.
Lt. Col. Troy Doyle, Interim Director of Justice Services said it would be better than visiting inmates through plexi-glass.
“Instead of driving to Clayton, I can be in my kitchen, cooking dinner and still be able to talk to my loved one,” he said.
Doyle, though, said he knows little about how the Securus contract came about.
A News 4 investigation showed the St. Louis-based company currently offering the phone services on an expired contract has tried to object at council meetings, saying they didn't get a fair shot at the new contract.
News 4 also learned the new County Executive’s Chief of Staff, Winston Calvert, was recently a lobbyist for Securus.
County Executive Sam Page said that did not present a conflict of interest, because Calvert was not involved in the procurement process.
Councilman Ernie Trakas also said he did not believe that to be an issue.
“He has steadfastly kept his hands off this, won't talk about it,” Trakas said.
Trakas said he had other concerns.
“I think how the RFP was pursued and what happened under the Stenger administration is what is putting a cloud on this now,” he said.
In fact, Securus and another phone service company were mentioned as priorities to look at by federal prosecutors during the investigation of then-executive Steve Stenger.
But Trakas said he had additional concerns as well.
The service doesn't cost taxpayers a penny. Instead, the county makes money off the phone calls, going back into the jails budget.
Tuesday night, the council voted against the proposed contract.
“I think the message from the council today and from my administration is that we need to look at a way to reduce these fees,” said County Executive Page.
San Francisco and New York have eliminated the costs of jail phone calls altogether.
Now advocates say St. Louis County could do the same.
“There are bad things going on in the jails so to prevent people from talking to their families, I think that's wrong,” Zorich said.
Trakas says he would consider making some portion of the calls free, but says some inmates might make hundreds of calls a week, so he questions whether it's feasible.
Dr. Page has advocated for reducing other jail fees as well.
Securus sent News 4 the following statement:
“Our contract would provide a higher quality of service, including access to vital education tools and job placements, at a lower cost to consumers. We hope to have the opportunity to work with St. Louis County to help incarcerated individuals stay connected to friends and family, and better prepare them to reenter society.”