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Jail inmates could get tablets for phone and video calls, but company says St. Louis County's bid process unfair

Jail inmates could get tablets for phone and video calls, but company says St. Louis County's bid process unfair

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CLAYTON — St. Louis County Executive Sam Page’s office is recommending awarding a contract for inmate phone and video calling at the Justice Center to a company that would provide tablets for inmates, but the company that is losing the county’s business says the bidding process was unfair because it never mentioned tablets.

Justice Services Director Raul Banasco first publicly revealed the tablet plan at a meeting with the jail’s advisory board on Jan. 24. He hailed it as a “game changer for the inmate population because it’s another avenue for them to communicate.”

Banasco said the tablets would allow inmates to communicate with family members, store a limited number of personal photos, research law books and file complaints. But he said that day he didn’t want to say too much about the plan because it was still in the procurement process.

St. Louis Public Radio was the first to report on the plan, revealing it called for 900 tablets that would include email-like communication, photo exchanges, video chatting, law library access and educational classes.

A letter from Page to the council on Feb. 7 revealed the winning bidder: Securus Technologies Inc.

While the county has traditionally profited from inmate calls, Page told the council, the county has no financial stake in the new contract. He said the contract included the lowest phone call rates in the state at less than 5 cents per minute, compared to 20 cents in St. Louis and 10 cents in Jackson County.

But a lawyer for the firm that currently holds the jail phones contract, Inmate Calling Solutions, is asking the council to hold off on awarding the contract until it investigates the process by which Securus was selected. The lawyer, Alexander S.Y. Lee, told the council in a letter that Securus “seems to have been given supplemental points” for including a proposal to provide inmates with tablets.

The request for proposals “did not request or mention tablets in any way,” Lee wrote. And he wrote that the county had previously answered a question about tablets saying it was “not interested.”

Lee wrote that his client offered lower rates than Securus and should have won a process that had “inconsistencies and errors” and “abnormalities in the scoring process” that appeared to violate the county’s procurement code.

A spokesman for Page said he could not respond because he did not have access to details about the bidding process on Monday, a federal holiday.

Securus had previously been selected by the county’s procurement office for the phone contract, but the council voted it down in a 1-4 vote on July 16.

That contract would have given the county a 77% commission on phone calls, or 16 cents per minute, and 25% on video calls, for two years. The county estimated it would net $960,000 per year from the contract, versus $830,000 in its current contract with Inmate Calling Solutions.

But that contract came amid a series of inmate deaths and a new focus by county officials on the treatment of inmates. One of the inmates who died, Lamar Catchings, had his phone privileges revoked and could not make a call outside the jail when his health deteriorated before his death of leukemia.

Page proposed a plan, later approved by the council, to eliminate several fees for inmates as a way of helping them reintegrate into society without resorting to crime.

Members of the council said that given Page’s priorities, they did not want to enter a deal with Securus in which the county would profit from inmate calls.

Securus was selected again in a contest that evaluated bidders on lowest cost, technology and functionality, experience and reliability, and certification as a minority- or woman-owned business, Page wrote.

Unlike the previous contracts, Page wrote, the county takes nothing and the request for proposals “prioritized treating incarcerated people and their families fairly, promoting public safety and reducing recidivism.”

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