The national Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, led by HRDC, aims to provide current information on the high costs of phone calls from state prisons and county jails. HRDC advocates for state-level reforms as well as federal reforms to reduce the costs of phone calls and associated fees.
The ability to place a telephone call to a friend or family member is a convenience that people outside of jails and prisons often take for granted. Phone calls are reasonably affordable and easily accessible for most people today, who enjoy unlimited calling plans as a component of standard telephone contracts. Unfortunately, prisoners face very different conditions for telephone service. Prisoners—quite literally a captive market—are forced to rely upon monopolistic, predatory operators chosen for them by state agencies. Despite the benefits of communication with loved ones during incarceration, prisoners and their families are paying increasingly higher prices for poorer quality services, which present significant burdens.
Notably, it is not prisoners who usually pay the high cost of prison and jail phone calls, but rather their family members who receive these calls.
Private companies, collectively known as inmate calling services (ICS), gather revenue from all calls made from prisoners. A percentage of that revenue is turned into “commissions,” also known as kickbacks, which is money paid by ICS operators back to the jail or prison. ICS operators include kickbacks in contracts with jails and prisons because kickbacks increase the likelihood of a vendor being selected. Up to 94.1% of the revenue from phone calls is turned into kickbacks; this is money added unnecessarily to the cost of each phone call, and kickbacks are far from the only additional fees families pay to stay in contact. Additional charges to prisoners and their families include connection fees, fees to add money to prisoner accounts, and fees to check account balances. Extra charges allow companies to make excessive profits despite the generous revenue shares paid to prisons and jails. Most charges are “collected for the benefit for the [inmate communication services] providers alone” and do not provide any additional benefits to the people who must utilize these services. Based on data from 2014, ICS operators are making revenues of over $6 billion every year from exploiting friends and families of prisoners.
All prisoners are being overcharged to some extent by ICS operators, but individuals who are incarcerated in county and city jails—often awaiting sentencing—are paying particularly outrageous prices to stay in contact with loved ones. Calls from county jails can cost up to 52 times more than calls from prisons located within the same state. In Illinois, for example, a 15 minute phone call from a state prison in early 2018 cost $.014 while a 15 minute phone call from an average county jail cost $7.11.
Video calling is a relatively new, but quickly spreading, telecommunication technology in correctional facilities. The ability to provide remote or onsite video calling should be a value for families separated by distance but the cost to both prisoners and relatives can be crushing. Unfortunately, some ICS contracts force jails and prison to eliminate in-person visits between prisoners and their families and replace all visits with video calls. Even in facilities where in-person visits have not been eliminated, the rise of video calls not only “pushes up the prices paid by prisoners' friends and family, it also creates an incentive for jails to make the in-person visiting experience less attractive so they'll make remote calls instead,” such as reducing visiting hours.
Continued grassroots advocacy has influenced states across the country to reduce rates, remove kickbacks, and, in one notable case, even to make phone calls from the city jail completely free of charge. We commend the states which have led the path for these reforms:
- California SB 81 (2007) reduces kickbacks for telephone services contracts to zero from 2010 and later.
- Illinois HB 6200 (2018) caps phone calls from Illinois prisons at $.07 per minute and stipulates that the Department of Corrections must contract with the vendor offering the lowest price to prisoners.
- Nebraska Correctional Services Admin Regulation 205.03 (2011) waives rights to receive kickbacks connected to ICS revenues.
- New Jersey Revised Statutes C.30:4-8.11-14 (2016) caps per-minute rates for domestic debit/prepaid/collect calls at $0.11 per minute and international calls are capped at $0.25 per minute. Extra fees like surcharges or account set up can no longer exceed the capped per minute rate. No correctional facility, private or public, may accept kickbacks.
- New Mexico § 33.14-1 (2011) removes kickbacks from telecommunication services contracts from state and county facilities.
- New York § 623 (2008) requires contracts to be the lowest possible cost to users. No revenue is collected beyond what covers operating costs. Additionally, New York City 741-A (2018) has made domestic phone calls from New York City jails completely free of charge.
- Rhode Island § 42-56-38.1 (2007) ensures call rates shall be comparable to non-prison rates. No contracts shall include kickbacks or surcharges for telephone usage by prisoners beyond those imposed by telecommunications supplier.
- South Carolina § 10-4-210 (2008) requires state agencies to not accept kickbacks for pay telephones in adult and juvenile corrections facilities. The state ensures calling rates will be reduced to reflect a lack of kickbacks.
Studies show that prisoners who maintain contact with their families while incarcerated are less likely to recidivate. For prisoners whose families cannot travel to distant prisons for in-person visitation, phone calls are the primary means of maintaining family ties and parental relationships. Our communities benefit when prisoners and their families maintain contact that will help them succeed post-release – but inflated prison and jail phone rates pose a financial barrier that frustrates such contact. Too often, private phone companies are forcing families to choose between speaking with their incarcerated loved ones or paying rent, buying food, or paying utility bills. Lowering the costs of calls from prisons, jails, juvenile facilities and other detention centers will ease the burden on prisoners’ families, who are disproportionately poor, people of color and members of communities already hit hard by mass incarceration.
Join our campaign today to stop this profiteering and fight for prison phone justice!
(For an article on the last major development with respect to prison phone rates on the federal level, in which the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the FCC’s intrastate (in-state) rate caps and other reforms, click here. Currently, interstate (long distance) prison and phone rates are capped at $.21/minute for debit and prepaid calls, and $.25/minute for collect calls. Intrastate prison and phones rates are currently unregulated by the FCC, resulting in extremely high rates, mainly, as noted above, at county jails.)
Updated March 18, 2019