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Families raise alarm about prison phone and video issues in Wisconsin

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Families raise alarm about prison phone and video issues in Wisconsin

Jun 24, 2024 | 6:30 am ET
By Isiah Holmes
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Families raise alarm about prison phone and video issues in Wisconsin
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The Wisconsin Department of Corrections Madison offices. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

When you’re locked up in prison, talking someone you care about takes on new significance. It may be one of the only things to look forward to, one of the only things holding you together. When that lifeline is suddenly cut, both your life and the lives of people waiting for you on the outside can be thrown into freefall. It’s something experienced by many Wisconsin families, who say they’re forced to navigate often unreliable phone and video services provided by the Department of Corrections (DOC).

“The phone lines do randomly go down for an hour or two at a time,” said Emily Curtis, who knows someone incarcerated in the Stanley Correctional Institution (SCI). “The phones will just randomly hang up on you in the middle of a call, you’ll try to press five to accept the call and it doesn’t work, just things like that — very, very terrible and unreliable service.” Part of an advocacy group called Ladies of SCI, Curtis said that the video services aren’t any better. “Those work maybe 50% of the time, and I’m being generous,” she told Wisconsin Examiner. 

A Green Bay Correctional Institution watch tower and guard. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
A Green Bay Correctional Institution watch tower and guard. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

At Stanley and other DOC facilities, phone calls and video visits are provided by ICSolutions. In 2018, a contract was signed with CenturyLink for those services. Two years later in 2020, ICSolutions took over after acquiring CenturyLink’s phone business. DOC spokesperson Beth Hardtke told Wisconsin Examiner that from 2019 to 2023, some facilities “may have used Zoom for visitation.” However, “ICSolutions now provides all video visitation and phone call services for persons in our care. There are no additional vendors currently.”

Squeezed for contact 

In Wisconsin, ICSolutions has cornered the contract for corrections communications. More than 22,000 people, according to recent population reports, are in DOC facilities. Not everyone has someone on the outside, but many do. And even those who don’t have family to contact still need phone and video access to the outside world. 

“We pay $2.50 for a visit, and most of the time they won’t connect, or they’ll cut out in the middle of the visit,” said Curitis. “Or, you know, just various technical issues with these visits. And, if it shows that it connected on their end, which it does most of the time even when it doesn’t connect, they still charge us that $2.50 for the visit.” Refunds are possible, said Curtis, but only if ICSolutions can see that the visit doesn’t start. “But if it does start and cuts out, or even sometimes it doesn’t even start but it shows on their end that it did, we’re still charged for it. And that’s a huge expense, when you’re talking $2.50 per visit, that adds up, and it’s really expensive.”

Amber Ostergaard, whose loved one — whom she prefers not to identify for fear of retaliation — is at SCI, has also felt the financial strain. In the last year alone, Ostergaard says she’s spent at least $1,000 on phone calls alone. “These phone calls are their lifeline, they’re our lifeline,” she told Wisconsin Examiner. Similar to solitary confinement, Ostergaard feels that not being able to contact friends and family is its own form of isolation for incarcerated people. “This is how they can reintegrate back into society. This is how they have support, you know? This is supposed to be a rehabilitative system. It’s not rehabilitative. It’s punitive; it’s purely punishment. And it’s not only them that’s being punished, it’s us that’s being punished outside those walls. We’re also being isolated from them when we can’t receive their call, and that’s not right.”

Families raise alarm about prison phone and video issues in Wisconsin
Protesters walk into the DOC offices. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

Even during in-person visits, limitations keep incarcerated people at arm’s length. Families connected to Stanley Correctional told Wisconsin Examiner that the facility limits hugs and kisses to just a few seconds. Since making in-person visits can be costly and time consuming, remote communication is in high demand. Not only do calls cost money, but the number of phones available is limited. The number of minutes incarcerated people are allowed for calls can also be reduced according to the needs of the facility.

Hardke said that for phone calls, adults are charged 6 cents per minute, while juveniles are charged 1 cent. “DOC does not pay ICSolutions to provide phone services,” said Hardtke. “The company is paid through the fees on phone calls made by persons in our care.” Hardtke explained that ICSolutions keeps 100% of call revenue at juvenile correctional facilities. In adult facilities, 4 cents per minute is returned to DOC with the remaining 2 cents going to the company. “State law requires that two-thirds of the commission paid to DOC be sent to the Department of Administration,” she explained. “The remaining one-third can only be spent by DOC on things to benefit persons in our care — this is how the state subsidizes things like video visits, free postage, microwaves in housing units, etc.” 

Although incarcerated people may get four free video visits a month, additional video visits are charged $2.5o per visit. “Because the number of video visits persons in our care choose to take part in doesn’t meet the minimum set in the contract, DOC is also required to pay a fee for this service,” said Hardtke. “So in the calendar year 2023, ICSolutions took in $8.8 million in revenue from phone calls at DOC facilities and paid DOC nearly $5.9 million in commission.” Per state law, two-thirds of the funds paid to the DOC went to the Department of Administration (DOA).

Families raise alarm about prison phone and video issues in Wisconsin
Protesters in the Department of Corrections lobby. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

“The entire system is backwards, it doesn’t make sense,” Amy Ruth, whose family member is also incarcerated, told Wisconsin Examiner. “You have all these families spending hundreds of thousands of dollars each month and they’re making millions, and the services are not reliable.” 

“I can’t understand why the monopoly is in place the way it is,” Ruth added, “when you’re already facing the isolation of your loved one … to just make it even harder. And on top of it, you’re making all of this money.”

Amy Rolack, whose partner is incarcerated at Fox Lake Correctional, has experienced the same issues. Describing  how little she trusts the DOC and ICSolutions, Rolack told Wisconsin Examiner, “it’s a money pit.” 

A blackout raises suspicions

High fees and frequent service failures have made families of incarcerated people suspicious of the DOC. Wisconsin Examiner has interviewed family members of seven people incarcerated in Wisconsin prisons who all shared similar experiences. Some were concerned that speaking out might lead to retaliation against their incarcerated family members. The fears were heightened recently by the news about wrongdoing leading to deaths at Waupun Correctional Institution (WCI). 

In early June, news broke that Waupun’s prison warden and eight other staff members had been jailed. Their charges stemmed from investigations into the deaths of four people incarcerated in the prison. Wisconsin’s oldest prison, Waupun began attracting controversy after implementing a “restrictive movement” order, or lockdown. Activity, recreation, communication and movement generally for its population were heavily curtailed Several people died during the lockdown, and the Dodge County sheriff pointed to negligence and indifference among staff as contributing factors. Word of the arrests led to protests outside the prison and reports of protests inside the prison circulated online. 

After the arrest of Waupun’s warden, Ruth, Curtis and Ostergaard noticed that their own contact with incarcerated family members had ceased. “I believe it was around the 6th [Thursday],” Ostergaard told Wisconsin Examiner, “I noticed that I had not gotten a call.” Ostergaard thought perhaps the phones were busy, or maybe the service was being reliably unreliable. “And it went pretty much throughout the entire day so I’m sitting here thinking, ‘OK, I’m starting to get a little bit worried here.” Going online to support groups like Ladies of SCI, Curtis saw messages about similar problems from other families. “This isn’t just at Stanley, this was widespread,” said Ostergaard. 

Families raise alarm about prison phone and video issues in Wisconsin
Waupun Correctional Institution, photographed in 2017 (Wisconsin Department of Corrections photo)

Curtis also noticed that days passed without a call since the outage of June 6. “And it was interesting because there were facilities like Chippewa Valley Correctional, 30 minutes away from Stanley, but their phones were not out,” said Curtis. “So it was just odd,” she said, noting that numerous facilities across a wide geographic range were affected. “The phones began working intermittently Saturday morning, they were down again Saturday afternoon, they came up again Saturday evening,” said Curtis. 

Rolack recalled that the morning the news about Waupun broke, she heard from her husband. “That was the last time I heard from him,” said Rolack. “And I finally heard from him again Saturday night, so I want to say that was Thursday morning. So I didn’t hear from him all the rest of the day Thursday, all of Friday, all of Saturday until Saturday night.”

Rolack reached out to Fox Lake, and was told that ICSolutions was fixing the phones and that “it was an internal issue.” But the phone service didn’t return when the facility said it would. Rolack had experienced problems with ICSolutions before, particularly over the last month. “They get two free calls every Sunday,” she said. But every time he tries to use his first free call, she said, “the call drops, and it’s been doing that for a month. So he has to actually use a call that I paid for first, and then he can call back later and use the free call. So then it’s a free call lost because they think that he’s used it.”

Hardtke said that 11 DOC facilities were “among a number of customers who experienced phone outages over the weekend due to a problem with fiber optic cable.” Phone and video services were disrupted by the outage, which began June 6, the day after news broke about the Waupun arrests. Although Hardke said service was restored on June 8, some of the family members who spoke with Wisconsin Examiner continued having problems the following week. Spanning nine Wisconsin counties, facilities with interrupted phone service were:

  • Lincoln Hills/Copper Lake Schools for Boys and Girls (Lincoln County)
  • Stanley Correctional Institution (Chippewa/Clark Counties)
  • Black River Correctional Center (Jackson County)
  • Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution (Crawford County)
  • Wisconsin Secure Program Facility (Grant County)
  • Redgranite Correctional Institution (Waushara County)
  • Fox Lake Correctional Institution (Dodge County)
  • Flambeau Correctional Center (Price County)
  • St. Croix Correctional Center (St. Croix County)
  • Gordon Correctional Center (Douglas County)
  • Jackson Correctional Institution (Jackson County)

According to an ICSolutions document dated June 13, the fiber optic cable was cut by a “third party construction crew” in Red Wing, Minnesota. Technicians dispatched to locate the problem found that the construction crew “was digging in a restricted area and inadvertently cut a major fiber,” the document states. It added, “to complicate the issue, repair work needed to be performed in an area controlled by the railroad authority and required manual excavation.” A new fiber was installed to restore service on June 8, according to the document. 

 

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ICSolutions didn’t respond to a request for comment. Hardke said in a statement, “no telecommunications vendor is perfect and many outside factors including storms, cut wires or cables and more can impact service. DOC uses a competitive contracting process to select vendors and works closely with the selected provider to resolve issues quickly and provide the best service we can.”

For families, assurances from DOC and ICSolutions are worth little. Nicole Christine recalled once not being able to reach her loved one for more than 48 hours. Both Ruth and Nicole added that at times, other members of their families could get through more reliably. The pattern led Ruth to contact ICSolutions wondering whether her phone had been blocked, but she was told there was no issue on the company’s end.

In the days after the arrests and protests at Waupun, Ruth participated in solidarity actions and helped spread the word. “I was going to the protests in Waupun,” she said, “and I don’t know if it was just coincidence or because the calls are recorded or monitored, but he tried calling 22 times and out of those 22 times, we couldn’t connect once. And just the level of frustration is incredible because you’re paying for these calls.” 

A protesters sign during a rally outside Green Bay's prison. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
A protest sign at a rally outside Green Bay’s prison. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

While Ruth and others describe the recent blackout as suspicious, there’s also the broader issue of poor service by ICSolutions, and on top of that the problems of overcrowding and understaffing across Wisconsin prisons. 

Families also described other problems with Wisconsin prisons. Often they hear concerns about the quality of food and water, overcrowding due to transfers from other prisons, and excessive punishments of prison residents for minor infractions. None of this, the families interviewed by Wisconsin Examiner said, can help lead someone to a better place before their prison time ends.

Curtis wondered, “Do you want just to warehouse somebody, and neglect them, and treat them like garbage for 10 years and then let them out and expect them to be great citizens, or do you want to provide them with the opportunities that they need to be able to change and to grow?”

“There are people who have already done that,” she added. “They have already been rehabilitated. And they are just sitting there just waiting and wasting taxpayer dollars.” 

Her partner owns a real estate company from prison, and has five degrees in business, accounting and other certifications. At the end of the day, Curtis said, people in Wisconsin’s prisons “need to be seen as people.”

Correction: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly stated that additional video calls are charged at $25 per visit. In fact the charge is $2.50 per visit. We also corrected the spelling of Beth Hardtke’s name and the loction of the fiber-optic cable that was cut, which was in Minnesota, not Michigan. We regret the errors.