The High Cost of Prison Phones

call_home2.jpgBy Bernadette Rabuy

Technological advances may have brought down the costs of communicating, but there is a niche telephone industry that charges millions of families $1 per minute to keep in touch. The prison and jail telephone industry and correctional facilities profit from families desperate to stay connected. The phone companies reap high profits, and the correctional facilities use phone revenue to augment strained budgets.

 

In a typical market, consumers choose a product or service based on the lowest price and the best features. However, in the prison and jail telephone market, the state prison or county jail chooses the company that promises to pay the facility the most money in the form of a “commission” on the revenue generated from phone calls. The families that use the service and pay the bills have no say in the negotiations. Further, to recoup the cost of paying the commissions, companies often tack on additional fees that can amount to 38% of what families spend on phone calls.

Punishing families of incarcerated individuals with exorbitant phone rates is counterproductive. Because family ties are essential to low recidivism and successful reintegration, correctional facilities should encourage as much communication as possible between incarcerated people and their lifelines on the outside. Some state prison systems have already recognized the need for low-cost communication and have rejected commissions. As a result, the New Mexico and New York state prison systems, for example, charge less than five cents per minute.

After a decade of pressure from family members and criminal justice reform advocates, the Federal Communications Commission in 2013 set interstate rate caps of $0.21-$0.25 per minute. Since the caps went into effect, call volumes increased nearly 70% in some facilities. However, the ruling only covers interstate calls.

Thus, families pay more to talk to a loved one incarcerated a few towns over than they would if the person was incarcerated thousands of miles away. One mother who lives in Rhode Island but has a cell phone with a Texas area code pays $10.99 for a 15-minute phone call with her son who is in a Texas jail. If she had a Rhode Island area code, she would pay the lower rate of $3.15 for that same phone call. Because in-state calls account for 92% of all domestic calls in the prison and jail telephone market, most calls remain unregulated. In October 2014, the Federal Communications Commission decided to consider more comprehensive regulations and accepted comments from the public until January 27, 2015. A ruling is expected sometime in the spring or summer.

Unfortunately, prison and jail telephone companies are fighting to maintain the status quo, and the facilities themselves claim that they need the revenue from commissions. Although exact figures are hard to come by, the FCC concluded that just 0.3% of correctional facilities’ budgets is funded by the commission system.

The good news is that FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn and the Alabama Public Service Commission—which has reined in high phone rates, the additional fees, and even high rates for other communication services such as video visitation—have made regulation of this niche industry a priority. Although the FCC comment period is over, activists can make an impact at the state level because, ultimately, telephone justice is a political question. Legislators and state public service commissions need to hear from activists that regulation of this industry is both urgent and necessary. Activists can encourage their states to follow the lead of Alabama’s comprehensive regulation of this oft-hidden industry or to bring down rates by rejecting commissions as New Mexico and New York have done.

Rabuy.jpgBernadette Rabuy is the policy and communications associate at the Prison Policy Initiative. Previously, she worked with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, Voice of the Ex-Offender, and Californians United for a Responsible Budget.

 

This article originally appeared in the spring 2015 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

 

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

 

Introduction to Socialist Feminism Call

April 30, 2017
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Join Philadelphia DSA veteran activist Michele Rossi to explore “socialist feminism.” How does it differ from other forms of feminism? How and when did it develop? What does it mean for our activism? 4-5:30pm ET, 3-4:30pm CT, 2-3:30pm MT, 1-2:30pm PT.

DSA Webinar: Talking About Socialism

May 02, 2017
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Practice talking about socialism in plain language. Create your own short rap. Prepare for those conversations about socialism that happen when you table in public.

Join us for our latest organizing training for democratic socialist activists: DSA’s (Virtual) Little Red Schoolhouse.

This training is at 9:00pm Eastern, 8:00pm Central, 7:00pm Mountain, 6:00pm Pacific, 5:00pm Alaska, and 3:00pm Hawaii Time. Please RSVP.

Instructor:

Steve Max, DSA Vice Chair and one of the founders of the legendary community organizing school, The Midwest Academy

In Talking About Socialism you will learn to:

  • Have a quick response ready to go next time someone asks you about democratic socialism.
  • Create your own elevator pitch about democratic socialism and DSA.
  • Use your personal experience and story to explain democratic socialism.
  • Think through the most important ideas you want to convey about democratic socialism.
  • Have a concise explanation of what DSA does, for your next DSA table, event or coalition meeting.

Training Details

  • This workshop is for those who have already had an introduction to democratic socialism, whether from DSA's webinar or from other sources.
  • If you have a computer with microphone, speakers and good internet access, you can join via internet for free.
  • If you have questions, contact Theresa Alt <talt@igc.org> 607-280-7649.
  • If you have very technical questions, contact Tony Schmitt <schmittaj@gmail.com> 608-335-6568.
  • Participation requires that you register at least 45 hours in advance, by midnight Sunday.

 

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
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Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.