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Up to 70% of the costs of telephone calls from prisons and jails have nothing to do with the cost of the phone service provided. Detention facilities across the country have exclusive contracts with prison phone companies like Securus, Global Tel*Link and CenturyLink. Most of these contracts guarantee a substantial “commission” kickback to the state or county agency contracting with them, which is usually based on a percentage of the gross revenue from phone calls made by prisoners. As a result, contracts often go to the company that offers the highest kickback, not the lowest calling rates. Prisoners’ families end up paying inflated rates due to these unfair contracts. Most states profit handsomely from prison phone kickbacks, receiving around $128.3 million in 2012. Only 8 states do not accept prison phone kickbacks, and they have some of the lowest phone rates in the nation.

Studies show that prisoners who maintain contact with their families while incarcerated are less likely to reoffend after they are released; that is, they have lower recidivism rates. For prisoners who are functionally illiterate or suffer from mental disorders and cannot rely on written correspondence, phone calls are the primary means of maintaining family ties and parental relationships. This is also true for prisoners whose families cannot travel to distant prisons for in-person visitation. Our communities benefit when prisoners and their families maintain contact that will help them succeed post-release – but inflated prison and jail phone rates post a financial barrier that frustrates such contact.

The national Campaign for Prison Phone Justice achieved success in August 2013 when the FCC voted to cap interstate (long distance) prison and jail phone calls to $.21/minute for debit and pre-paid calls and $.25/minute for collect calls. These rates went into effect on February 11, 2014. While the FCC’s unprecedented order helps many families, much more remains to be done. An estimated 85% of calls from detention facilities are made within the same state (intrastate). Thus, the focus must now shift to extending similar reforms and rate caps to intrastate prison and jail phone calls. 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.