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Cost of Communicating with Prisoners Breaking Family Budgets During Pandemic

Most prisons have curtailed visitation, leaving families to communicate via phone calls, video chats, emails, and letters. Because prisons are cramped-quartered Petri dishes, families seek communication more often with their incarcerated loved one. The cost for services to communicate from prison are expensive, and as most prisoners rely on their family for money, those costs are born by their families.

Dominique Jones-Johnson said the cost of communicating with her father has strained her budget to the breaking point. Her father, Charles Brown, Jr., is serving time at Louisiana State Prison. A 15-minute call from the prison costs $3.15. By May 2020, Jones-Johnson had accrued nearly $400 for calls from the prison. The local calls would be free for anyone in the state but prisoners.

Jones-Johnson, who founded the charity Daughters Beyond Incarceration, said “the money stressed me out, but not talking to him stresses me out more.” That stress increased when Brown tested positive for COVID-19 in September 2020, and he was placed in isolation and not allowed to make phone calls.

Options for video chats and emails are an expensive option. In Florida, JPay charges up to $0.39 per email and a 15-minute video visit costs at least $2.95. Jones-Johnson must pay $7.50 for a 30-minute video call with her father. A 2019 report by the Prison Policy Initiative found the average cost of a 15-minute call from local jails was $5.74. The Here Institute in 2017 found that video calls were $12.95, an amount so expensive that 90% of prisoners never even tried to use the service.

Communication is critical for the 2.3 million persons imprisoned in the United States. “People need to be in touch more than ever,” said Bianca Tylek, executive director of the advocacy group Worth Rises, “and they have less money than ever to pay for it.”

A Louisiana Department of Corrections spokesman said the agency “understands the importance of inmates maintaining contact with loved ones.” It said it has offered 30 minutes of free calls during the pandemic. Securus said it had offered “191 million free minutes of phone connections” since the pandemic began.

Offering free phone calls, however, is something Securus has fought. In 2019, Securus spent $40,000 to hire lobbyists to oppose Connecticut state Representative Josh Elliott’s legislation. Elliot’s bill would make phone calls from Connecticut’s prisons free. After Securus’s lobbying became public, it reversed course and it promised to not oppose the legislation.

HRDC has been at the forefront of pushing to reduce the cost of prison phone calls. Its lobbying resulted in the Federal Communications Commission lowering the cost of interstate calls. A rule lowering the cost of intrastate calls was reversed by a federal appeals court.

Families of those with loved ones have no choice but to pay the high cost of those calls if they want to speak to their incarcerated loved one. “It’s a constant struggle,” said Jones-Johnson. “But what else can I do?” 


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