Iowa Jails Lower Phone Rates But Not Far Enough
The Utilities Board has approved rates for five jail phone providers: Prodigy, Network Communications International Corporation, Combined Public Communications, ICSolutions, and Global Tel*Link. It has not yet approved a rate for Securus, but it and the other companies were instructed to keep their rates at 25 cents or less for prepaid calls.
GTL’s proposal for prepaid calls was unanimously approved on February 16, 2021. It sets the rate at 22 cents per minute for prepaid calls from the Black Hawk County Jail, 16 cents per minute from the Scott County Jail, and 11 cents per minute from the Boys State Training School.
This type of price disparity is something the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) requested the Utilities Board to end when it ordered a price reduction. ‘‘The incarceration of of a loved one is stressful. Families should not have to face the additional stress of paying hundreds of dollars more for a phone service simply because a loved one was moved to a facility in a different county,’’ HRDC said in a September 19, 2019, letter commenting on Utility Board questions. ‘‘There is no reason to allow a telephone company to exert such radical price differentials or to maintain such inflated costs overall(semi) it’s simply bad regulatory practices.’’
The Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) estimated the new phone tariffs will save families with jailed loved ones about $1 million per year. The prior cost of a call was extreme. The Bremer County Jail had the highest rate at $3.74 for the first minute and 74 cents after. A 15-minute call cost $14.10. Securus has lowered the rate to 21 cents per minute, making the cost of a 15-minute call $3.15.
Some jails took action to increase family communication during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Johnson County Jail provides free phone calls for the first ten days a person is in jail and 17 cents a minute after. It also offered free video visitation Sunday through Friday.
The pandemic and pressure from the Federal Communications Commission, which sought to lower rates to 16 cents, forced the Utilities Board to speed up its review in 2020.
The Utilities Board order is clearly progress, but in this age 25 cents per minute is still both ridiculous and obscene with no other American consumers paying such rates for telephone communications. Considering that prison phone companies purchase phone time at $.03 cents per minute on wholesale markets, the 25 cent rate cap allows for massive profits. “While a small step in the right direction, the Utility Commission’s $.25 per minute rate cap legitimizes an obscene profit margin for hedge fund owned telecom companies that exist only to exploit prisoners and their families,” said Paul Wright, PLN’s editor.