by Matt Clarke
On February 11, 2019, the non-profit Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) issued a report on the “State of Phone Justice,” noting progress on reducing state prison phone rates but fewer reforms in local jails, where high rates and fees persist.
Since the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) capped the cost of out-of-state (long distance) phone calls from prisons and jails at $0.21-.25 per minute and limited some of the ancillary fees charged by phone service providers, telecom companies have concentrated their predatory practices at local jails. [See: PLN, Dec. 2013, p.1].
While phone rates in most state prisons have declined in recent years, phone service providers such as Global Tel*Link (GTL) and Securus Technologies have burdened prisoners and their family members with numerous fees. Those fees, including fees to add funds to prepaid phone accounts, are a significant burden for prisoners’ families, many of which have low incomes.
Imagine a family whose breadwinner is in jail and unable to afford bond. In addition to worrying about how to pay for food, rent and utilities, they also must deal with jail phone costs that may run over $20 for a 15-minute call. Making the choice to decline a call due to the high costs can be heartbreaking.
According to PPI, the national average cost of a 15-minute call from a local jail is $5.61 – three times the average cost of a similar call from a state prison. In some states, the ratio is much higher. For example, in Illinois the cost of a phone call from a state prison is less than one cent a minute, but a 15-minute call from an Illinois jail costs $7.01 on average.
At $14.49, Arkansas had the most expensive average cost for a 15-minute jail phone call. It also had the highest single rate – $24.82 for one 15-minute call. Michigan averaged $11.89, while the cost of a 15-minute jail call averaged $7.54 in New York, $6.50 in Texas and $5.70 in California. Given that the cost of providing phone services is about the same, why are the rates at local jails so much higher than in state prisons?
One explanation is that prison systems are larger and can afford to have experts analyze telecom contracts whereas jails are smaller and unlikely to have contracting experts on staff or be able to afford outside consultants. Also, most jail prisoners make only a few calls before being released, whereas the typical stay in a state prison is 29 months, which gives families more time to organize and protest excessive phone costs.
Further, many state legislatures and prison oversight agencies have passed statutes and regulations requiring lower phone rates. State governments are also less dependent on generating revenue from prison phone calls than the often tight-budgeted local governments responsible for operating jails. Most jail phone contracts include “commission” kickback payments to the county or sheriff’s office, while at least 11 state prison systems do not accept such kickbacks.
“Jails have managed to escape the political pressure that forced many prisons to bring their rates down,” noted PPI executive director Peter Wagner.
In 2015, the FCC called the high fees charged by prison phone companies “the chief source of consumer abuse” in the industry. That was shortly after the agency acted to cap rates for out-of-state calls and some of the fees. But telecom companies can still charge $3.00 for a credit card payment; they have also skirted the regulations by having payment companies such as Moneygram and Western Union charge higher fees to add funds to phone accounts, which they share with the telecom providers.
For example, both payment companies charge $11.95 to send $25 to Securus, which, along with GTL, controls most of the prison phone market. Plus telecom companies often bundle their phone services with unregulated video-calling, voicemail, tablets and other services, which makes it difficult to change vendors.
Clearly, comprehensive regulation of the prison phone industry is needed – particularly at the local jail level. But due to the FCC’s current hands-off policy, such reforms will likely have to happen state-by-state or county-by-county.
“If we’re going to tame the correctional phone market, we need sheriffs, state legislators, public utilities commissions and federal regulators to understand the significance of jail phone calls” which have the highest rates, Wagner noted.
Sources: prisonpolicy.org, thehill.com
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