When A 15-Minute Conversation Costs $15: The Outrageous Cost Of Making Phone Calls From Prison (And How The FCC Is Finally Getting Involved To Stop It)

This probably wasn't a problem for Piper and Larry, but it is a massive burden on many of the two million Americans currently incarcerated, and their families.
Publish date:
August 13, 2013
prison, class, prisoners' rights

It’s an underappreciated fact that many former prison inmates rejoin society (as it were) with a built-in disadvantage beyond even the obvious fact that they’ve been in prison: debt. Prisoners must not only repay court costs and fees, but also must offset the cost of their probation supervision; in Massachusetts, for example, the average bill faced by a former inmate who has completed probation is about $1,000.

You might read that and think it doesn't sound terribly unreasonable, on the surface, until you take a look at the broader consequences, like the fact that it frequently costs more money to collect this debt than its payment would generate. And if $1,000 sounds like no big deal to you, then check yourself, because to a person just out of prison, often with very few skills for rebuilding a law-abiding life and minimal useful assistance from social services, $1,000 can start them off with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle before they’ve even left the finish line. And if you don’t pay? Back to prison with you.

It also creates a vicious cycle:

[H]ow does a young man newly out of jail, with very few job prospects, suddenly come up with a thousand dollars? Perhaps by utilizing the same skills that landed him in prison to begin with. “It pushes folks towards illicit sources of income,” [Bobby Constantino, a former prosecutor in Roxbury District Court] said. After two years as a prosecutor in Roxbury, Constantino was sick of the revolving door. “I would watch them come out other side more in debt, less employable,” he said. “It seemed like the system was taking a bad problem and making it worse.”

These complicated realities are not new; even everybody’s current favorite prison dramedy “Orange Is The New Black” briefly (too briefly, perhaps) touches on the fact that for former prisoners, freedom is never free.

What you might NOT have known is that prisoners nationwide have been facing virtual extortion for years even while they’re in jail, in confronting the cost of one of their only connections to the outside world: telephone calls.

Prison telephone service is a business, and a lucrative one. This isn’t your standard AT&T, mind, but private telecom companies that sign contracts with the state to serve correctional institutions. In many states, the state itself gets a commission on every phone call, even though this would seem to defy logic (for more in-depth information about how this bewildering system works, see this article). Add to this the fact that cell phones are contraband in prisons (not least because they provide competition to the astronomical rates set by prison phone service providers) and you wind up with a monopoly run amok that sure SEEMS like it would be mad illegal anywhere else.

Indeed, in some cases, the commission the phone company kicks back to the state can be up to 60% of the total revenue generated by the calls, which leads the phone company to set ever higher rates in that state, because, naturally, being private companies, they're not in this to provide a useful service at a reasonable cost, but to make money.

These companies could hypothetically raise rates as high as they wanted because -- MOST AMAZINGLY -- until this past Friday, prison phone rates were totally unregulated.

So depending on the state, a 15-minute phone call could cost upwards of 10 dollars, or even $15. For 15 minutes. To talk to your family, your friends, your children. (Hearing impaired? That’ll cost you extra. Because apparently these companies are run by the devil.)

The prison system is, without a doubt, overcrowded and underfunded. But this is not a fair way to offset costs. Certainly, for middle class inmates with well-off families, this might not be an impossible burden. However, for the majority of prisoners, it can be a severe imposition on their loved ones to cover the cost of what should be a simple phone call to the support system that will both help them survive their incarceration and, we might hope, help them to return to their non-prison life on solid ground when they get out.

More than that, the emotional cost to the families of incarcerated people who have to choose how a limited income is spent can be staggering, as this piece by Jamilah King at Colorlines explains:

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are more than 2 million adults incarcerated in the United States and more than 70,000 young people being held at juvenile detention facilities, a growing number of whom have been non-violent drug offenders. But there are millions more affected by incarceration, including an estimated 2.7 million children who have at least one parent in a prison or jail. Studies have shown that the incarceration of a parent has an intensely traumatic effect on children, akin to the death of a loved one.The mother of two small boys whose father is currently incarcerated, Bethany Fraser knows all too well the tough choices that families like hers have had to make between basic necessities like groceries and the exorbitant cost of prison phone calls. “My kids are among the 2.7 million children with an incarcerated parent. Losing their father to prison also meant losing over half of our family’s income, and gaining a painfully large phone bill,” she told FCC commissioners at at Friday’s hearing, fighting back tears. “As you vote today I would like each of you to know that I would do anything, and pay any amount to keep my children connected to their father. But choosing between essential needs and keeping kids connected to their parents is a choice no family should have to make.”

Basically this has been a system in which the families of incarcerated individuals are punished too, and that is not acceptable.

Good news came out of Friday’s hearing, at least: the Federal Communications Commission will be investigating these unreasonable rates further, and in the meantime will require prison-contracted phone companies to cap calls at 25 cents per minute -- which frankly, is still far from cheap, but pulls back the states that were closing in on $1/minute. Considering the FCC was first petitioned to start regulating these rates by inmates’ families over a decade ago, the move is long overdue.

It’s easy enough to suggest that if prisoners did not want to pay exorbitant phone rates (or be separated from their children), they shouldn’t have committed a crime, but prisoners should not have to forfeit their human rights when they become incarcerated, whether their crime is embezzlement or selling drugs or murder. Unfortunately, this is all too often exactly what happens, and it has powerful and lasting effects not only on the prison population, but on the whole of society as well.

When certain individuals -- a disproportionate number of whom are low-income people of color -- have their humanity erased and are instead deemed to be dangerous animals unworthy of fair treatment, that reinforces systems of inequality throughout society. All the moreso when those individuals are abused and mistreated with no recourse, from outrageous phone costs, to forced sterilization, to flat-out torture via indefinite stays in Secure Housing Units (aka “solitary confinement”).

The rest of us all too gladly look the other way and think, “Well, don’t break the law, then,” but prisoner abuse means we are breaking human beings, and then sending them, broken, back into the world with the expectation that they should fix that damage on their own and somehow overcome those experiences to be something “better” than they were. It doesn’t work, and refusing to respect basic human rights creates a culture that fosters more crime -- both inside the prison system and out -- instead of less.

It matters, how we treat our prisoners. It’s difficult to value yourself, and your own life, when no one else does. And sometimes, all you have is a phone call to remind you that somebody cares.


Big ups to Simone Eastman for bringing this issue to my attention, and to Emily G for supplementing my research.