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The Ongoing Push to End Outrageous Prison Phone Charges

Groups in several states are drawing increased attention to the high cost of jail and prison phone rates, and pushing to reduce or eliminate such charges. HRDC, the publisher of PLN, has been a leader in this movement since 1992 and founded the Prison Phone Justice Campaign in 2012 to end the financial exploitation of prisoners and their families.  It has achieved significant reductions in the cost of prison and jail phone calls. But much more is still needed. PLN has reported extensively on this issue over the past 28 years.

Unless someone has been through the criminal justice system themselves, or tried to stay in contact with a family member or friend in jail or prison, they are unlikely to be aware of the $1.75 billion industry that gouges consumers by providing phone services to prisoners.

There are few providers for inmate calling systems, though the two largest providers, Securus and Global Tel*Link, form a virtual duopoly in the market. Securus has contracts with about 3,400 prisons and jails in the United States, and Global Tel Link has over 2,400, according to a December 31, 2019 story from NBC News.

These companies “negotiate” contracts with jails and prisons, though smaller facilities often have little room for negotiating. This results in widely varying rates.

In Utah alone, 24 counties operate a jail facility, and each charges a different rate. For a 15-minute local phone call, the cheapest county is Box Elder at $1.56. The most expensive is Millard County at an eye-popping $11.46. “People don’t call home,” said Casey Cormani, a Utah state prisoner housed in Millard County as part of Utah’s program to reduce prison overcrowding. “It’s just too expensive. I feel like this is separating families rather than keeping inmates closer to their families.”

In 2014, under pressure from HRDC and the Prison Phone Justice Campaign, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) capped interstate rates at 21 cents per minute. The FCC cited statistics that said prisoners who maintain contact with family and friends are less likely to commit new crimes after their release. More contact between prisoners and the outside world also reduces disciplinary problems, making such environments safer for prisoners and prison staff alike. HRDC’s comments were cited dozens of times in the FCC order.

But the FCC stopped short of regulating intra-state calls from jails and prisons, and all efforts to reintroduce such measures at the federal level have been blocked by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who was appointed by President Trump in 2017 and who has long opposed such regulations. The prison telecoms filed suit to roll back the modest FCC caps on intrastate rates and two days before oral arguments, Pai instructed FCC lawyers not to defend the rates. HRDC intervened in the case to defend the order. The D.C. Circuit then duly struck them down. See: Global Tel*Link v. FCC, 866 F.3d 397 (DC Cir. 2017).

In the meantime, groups have been working at the local and state level to change this system, which takes advantage of a largely poor, “captive market.” Worth Rises, a prison reform group, was successful with its efforts in New York City, and now all outbound calls from the city’s jail on Rikers Island are free of charge.

Groups advocating for similar changes have formed in more than a dozen other states, but they face another challenge: local sheriffs. When county jails contract with companies like Securus, they receive kickbacks based on the total revenue from calls. Responding to a proposal in Massachusetts to reform this system, Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson said it would deprive his jail of $750,000 per year in revenue. While some jails claim to earmark this money for rehabilitation programs, it is often used for general maintenance. Even if true, it is unfair for rehabilitation efforts to be borne on the backs of prisoners’ families. Much more common are jails using phone kickbacks to pay for everything from squad cars to shotguns and Tasers.

Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative calls these fees a “regressive tax structure” that charges the poorest residences for county services. “Sometimes the money is used for good purposes,” said Wagner. “But if so, there should be other ways to pay for that.”

According to Hodgson, there is a much easier solution than reform. “Here’s a simple alternative: Don’t come here. Stay out of jail and leave people in your neighborhood alone,” said Hodgson. This is the kind of attitude that reform groups must work to change if they are to succeed in their push for a just and equitable system.

HRDC executive director Paul Wright argues that prison and jail officials need to stop seeing prisoners and their families as money making centers to be monetized and financially exploited. If they want more money to keep caging people they need to raise taxes on everyone to pay for it. 


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Related legal case

Global Tel*Link v. FCC