Prison Phones: Making Millions by Draining Families

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It is cheaper to call Singapore at 13 cents a minute from your Verizon cell phone than it would be to speak to someone in prison in this country. The burden of having a family member or loved one in prison is already heavy, making matters worse is the reality that families are continuously wrung dry by expensive calls which include profitable “kickbacks” to the prisons themselves.

According to Prison Legal News, the cost of making a long distance phone call from a prison in Oregon includes a $3.95 connection fee plus 69 cents a minute, costing $14.30 for a 15-minute call. Compare this with making a public call outside of prison, which costs anywhere from 5 to 10 cents per minute for long distance calls on landlines, costing a maximum of $1.50 for a 15-minute call.

For many families with loved ones behind bars, the choice between accepting a collect call and putting food on the table is a real and painful decision.  It may come as a surprise to many that the increased cost of these calls has nothing to do with the actual service that is being delivered. What is actually happening is that prisons have designed a business system that allows them to offset their operation costs onto the shoulders of innocent families and to reap a profit. 

The state prison kickback rate varies, with Texas accepting a 40% commission rate for phone calls and charging up to $6.45 for a 15-minute call. That same phone call provided by the same company in Maryland yields a 60% commission rate and costs a family member $17.30.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the government agency that regulates phone companies, has rules that prevent monopolies in order to favor competition.  These rules, however, do not extend to the prison phone system, resulting in monopoly rates for inmates.  This lack of oversight allows prisons to establish contracts with phone companies that include fees in the forms of kickbacks to the prison.  These kickbacks function as contractual bribes in exchange for a company’s monopoly over a prisons communication system with the outside world.  This has created a situation in which prisons select the contract with the highest costs, to add a greater profit to their coffers.

The cycle becomes more abhorrent as the U.S. government has increasingly turned to private industries to run its prisons. The prison phone system within the United States is a lucrative business estimated to gross $362 million per year. 42% of that cost, or $152 million, is kickbacks. Many states are quick to accept monies that fill gaps within their own budgets. To put it plainly, the public service of the rehabilitation of inmates has been turned into a multi-million dollar industry, at the cost of innocent families of inmates. 

While rates within the Inmate Telephone System used by the Federal Bureau of Prisons remain fairly low at $.06 per minute for local calls, and $.23 for long distance debit calls, long distance collect calls remain steep with a $2.45 initial cost and $.40 per additional minute. Long distance calls are the most lucrative because many prisoners are transferred to out of state to facilities that have more room or run at a lower cost. The majority of prisoners don’t readily have access to funds from which they can cover the costs of the call deferring them to the collect call system, leaving it up to the recipient pay for the charges. Charges which include various “fees” such as the ones charged by private companies like Securus, which include a $2.99 “bill statement fee” and $6.95 “processing fee” for payments made online or, ironically, by phone.

In light of these disturbing trends, some states have made reforms and refused to participate in these abuses. Many states such as New York, New Mexico and Alaska have discontinued the practice of accepting kickbacks to some degree. In California for example, before SB. 81 was passed, long distance calls were as high as $3.95 plus 89 cents per minute. After the passage of reform, calls are now significantly less at $1.52 plus 34 cents per minute. Lawmakers such as U.S. Rep Bobby Rush has proposed federal legislation in the form of H.R. 555, The Family Connection Protection Act of 2007 during the past two sessions that would provide relief for the families of inmates. The courts have also driven reform in states such as Florida, Washington and Louisiana, where companies were forced to repay millions to families of inmates’ for overcharges.

Despite these state-by-state reforms, it is time for the FCC to provide relief for families and reform the system by addressing a petition advocates have been pushing for since 2003.  The first step in this process is to become informed, Public Knowledge hopes that people will join our upcoming efforts to pressure the U.S. government to intervene and stop prisons from profiting off the hardships of the families of prisoners.

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