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Potential vendor change for County Jail communication services causes controversy

St. Louis County Council Chairperson Lisa Clancy [D-District 5] answers questions from the media after the Feb. 18 council meeting [Photo: Jeffrey Bricker]

St. Louis County is changing the vendor it uses to provide communication services between those incarcerated and the outside world. Based on the recommendation of County Executive Sam Page, the County Council on Feb. 18 moved one step closer to entering into a contract with Secures Technologies, Inc.

The change is about more than merely the services provided to inmates.

“As we stated in the department’s request to issue the RFP [request for proposals], a person’s ability to maintain family relationships while they are incarcerated promotes their mental health … and reduces the likelihood that the individual will re-offend,” Page wrote in a memorandum to the council supporting the proposal.

Some community advocates had previously complained about the prior vendor, Inmate Calling Solutions, accusing the company of charging unreasonable rates and providing poor service. Page seemed to acknowledge those concerns in his comments to the council.

“Unlike St. Louis County’s previous telecommunications contracts, this RFP prioritized treating incarcerated people and their families fairly, promoting public safety and reducing recidivism,” Page noted in his memo.

A representative from Inmate Calling Solutions was quick to disagree with that assessment and call foul on the county’s bidding process.

“We expect that St. Louis County may have unjustifiably scored ICS very low in all of the subjective scoring areas of the RFP,” Alexander S.Y Lee, executive vice president for ICS’s parent company, TKC Holdings, said in a letter to the county council. “Accordingly, we respectfully request that the council investigate that portion of the evaluation … and not make an award until [those concerns] are appropriately resolved.”

Lee contends that his company was told to only submit a proposal that included fees. Furthermore, he argues that the charges to inmates and their families in ICS’s proposal have been misstated by Page in his recommendation to the council. Lee argues the rate per call proposal by ICS was “over three times lower than the [one selected from Secures].”

“I think that’s a misleading characterization about the recommendation that’s been moved forward,” council chairperson Lisa Clancy [D-District 5] told reporters after the Feb. 18 meeting. “What I’ve been able to identify so far is that there are some basic usage fees that were a concern, and so I’m concerned that allegation is misleading.”

Last summer, the county’s Procurement Office recommended replacing ICS with Secures. At that time, the competing offers came down to which vendor’s services would profit the county the most. Under the previous contract, the county made commissions off services [including calls] made by inmates to their families. However, that proposal was voted down by the county council.

Amidst a recent wave of reforms in the county’s Justice Services, which included the elimination of many fees to inmates, county officials are no longer looking to make money off inmate communications. That was, at least in part, a driving force behind the most recent RFP process.

Page has hailed the agreement as a “no-cost contract” and a “first of its kind for St. Louis County.”

Some speculation exists that recent financial trouble within ICS may have weighed into the decision process. According to a January 2020 article on The Alt Assets Network, the company could be for sale after a failed merger attempt last year. That merger was blocked by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Communication Commission. The company that ICS was attempting to merge with just happened to be Secures.

After Lee delivered his remarks to the county council on Feb. 18, several members of the media attempted to get additional comments from him. Although he generally declined, he couldn’t help but answer one key question.

When asked if he felt the RFP process should be reopened due to the alleged irregularities, Lee interestingly said, “I think we won the bidding, so I’m not necessarily rooting for that.”

The county council is expected to take up the issue again later this month.

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