AIKEN - The state of South Carolina made $5 million last year from its prisoners' telephone calls.
Aiken County made $25,000 from the calls.
Inmate advocates have complained for years that the profiteering is unfair. Because prisoners in any lockup must call collect, it is usually their families who accept the charges.
"You've got families paying $300, $400, $500 a month," said Greenville attorney John Hagins Jr., who filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of some of the state's 22,000 inmates' families to regain some of the money paid out for collect calls. "Some of those families, it has ruined them."
Nebraska is the only state that does not profit from the collect call system.
Last year, Florida made more than $16 million. Georgia made at least $10 million, according to data provided by the states.
Those numbers have caught the eye of some government officials.
"You are making victims out of the families," said Aiken County Councilman Phil Napier.
Despite objections by Mr. Napier and Councilman Willar Hightower, the county council approved a contract with Sprint last week that would charge those accepting local calls from county prisoners 94 cents per minute. Out-of-state calls cost 89 cents a minute. A surcharge of up to $4.99 can be added to some calls.
State rates with Sprint are similar. Each local call carries a surcharge of $1.50, and rates can be as high as 50 cents per minute for the first minute and 35 cents per minute afterward.
Michael Sponhour, spokesman for the state's budget and control board, the agency that oversees the state's 1,700 public telephones in prisons and on state grounds, said that until the current contract expires in 2005, the rates cannot exceed the cost of local calls under BellSouth.
Mr. Sponhour said South Carolina gets about 48 percent of Sprint's profits under the contract, a rate that compares favorably with that of other states.
But excusing wrong because others do it is not right, said state Sen. Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken.
Mr. Ryberg, the chairman of the Senate's Corrections and Penology Committee, introduced a bill this year that would deny the state profits on inmate phone calls. It was killed in committee.
"I think what we are doing punishes the families," he said. "We're just ripping them off like other states. I think we need to look beyond the amount of money to what is right."
The money gained by Aiken County does go back into helping inmates. It is put into a general inmate fund that pays for food, among other things. That is the policy of most states, and is one reason to keep the profits, officials said. Also, they said, it would be unfair for taxpayers to foot the bill.
"It's a double-edged sword," said Georgia prison spokesman Scott Stallings. "But if we do away with that, then the taxpayers would have to come up with that $10 to 12 million. That's not fair. It's a tough question."
To some, the answer is easy.
Dollie Morrall of Family Link, a South Carolina prisoner advocacy group, proposes each person in the state be taxed 50 cents on their phone bill. She said the inmate collect call rates are an undeclared tax anyway, so why not make everybody pay it equally?
"I don't think anyone would complain about paying 50 cents to keep prisons safe and secure," Ms. Morrall said.
Reach Matthew Boedy at (803) 648-1395 or firstname.lastname@example.org.