Exhaustive 50-State Report Analyzes True Cost of Prison and Jail Phone Calls

By Audrey Sawyer 

EASTHAMPSON, MA – Although the average cost of a phone call is closing in on zero, this is not the reality for families of those desiring to reach incarcerated loved ones – a few companies are charging millions of consumers unethically massive quantities, charges the Prison Policy Initiative in an exhaustive detailed report.

Although PPI does indicate that some jails have settled rates as small as one or two cents a minute, PPI claims the majority of jails charge 10 times that amount or higher. 

Jails and prisons tend to select telecom providers according to whichever is willing to spend the most money in kickbacks towards the facility, argues PPI, adding rates intentionally are set to appeal to both the facilities seeking revenue and the company’s interest in profits, resulting in poorer families of the incarcerated paying the rates to keep in contact. 

Through applied pressure via regulatory action by the FCC, advocacy campaigns, state legislators, rates for calls have decreased. 

But PPI states that despite these improvements, costs are still high in jails specifically, some smaller telecom providers are overcharging when referring to an in-state call to a landline, and “we see that larger companies are working to undo all current progress by growing at a rapid pace.”

Prison Policy Initiative created a nationwide database of phone rates in 50 state prison systems (including thousands of local jails and other detention facilities of many types). From December 2021, the graph shows per-minute rates have been on the decline steadily over the previous 10 years as a result of action from the FCC and state and local levels. 

The charging of two separate rates by both prison and jail phone companies is dependent on if the call is reaching someone in the same state or is reaching someone who is out of state, explains PPI, noting after the FCC capped the cost of out of state calls from prisons and jails in 2014, rates immediately went below the less aggressively regulated calls from in state. 

After a few years (mainly pressure from family members), state prisons decided to lower their in-state costs, PPI notes, citing the difference was local jails where the organizing is not as solid and administrators not as aggressive, costs of in-state calls were slower to catch up but have made strides recently. 

Two main indicators of change include that collect calls are no longer in existence and if they are they must (under FCC recent rules) be under the amount of prepaid calls, and that FCC has outlawed out of state calls charging more for the first minute of a particular call, which then spread to in-state calls as well, said PPI.

“When we evaluate reducing fees, the same progress is not seen as was seen in phone rates. The FCC banned the majority of fees except for five types in 2015 which had set maximums which are unable to be exceeded. Until late 2021, the FCC was not considering potential loopholes that companies would be exploiting,” said PPI.

Four other types of fees the FCC has either looked at or ought to consider – PPI suggests – include the banning the seizure of unclaimed funds, reigning in the practice of providers in cahoots with Western Union and MoneyGram to inflate payment fees (which will be addressed in 2023 when the Fourth Report and Order takes place to set the fee at $5.95), eliminating the majority of the likelihood for abuse), banning the concept of double dipping (charging two deposit fees for the same transaction), and ending the “single call” fee abuse. 

Moves made by states to decrease costs include in-state rate caps, ancillary fee reform, prohibiting state commissions, and agency sponsored phone calls. 

PPI said Connecticut is referenced as one of the standards here, because Connecticut law states  corrections administrators “may supplement voice communication service with any other communication service including video communication and mail” and that “any communication service shall be provided free of charge to such individuals and any communication whether initiated or provided by the service shall be free of charge to the person initiating or receiving the communication.” 

PPI said this is to guarantee that facilities are no longer able to use such exploitative services like in their past. 

Telecom companies are looking to evade regulation, PPI comments, and have been looking to adapt. Two companies ViaPath (GTL) and Securus have been “purchasing up competitors that sell products like video calling, release cards, tablets, electronic messaging, and money transfer platforms that families use to send to their loved ones,” reported PPI.

Families claim poor (and nonexistent) tech support with issues such as dropped calls, and even if working for the moment, are inaccessible and vary depending on the area and are sold at inconvenient times lacking flexibility, the group adds.

PPI said it has become problematic” as products are less regulated than the typical phone call, and companies have attempted to make the argument that they are not in the view of the state and federal regulators to result in higher profits for the companies. 

The majority of policies both federal and state that are attempting to lower phone call costs are not targeting video or other similar services,” added PPI.

PPI warns that without Congress deciding to act, any state legislature becomes able to implement a rate cap on services or grant jurisdiction to a state’s utility agency. 

Families are then given under current policies and costs no choice but to pay the high costs. 

PPI noted some of these companies were admittedly unaware of the new rules regarding in state and out of state classification, meaning that while there are companies operating under rule of the FCC, others are illegally (possibly unintentionally) charging higher rates for in-state than what the FCC decided is out of state. 

PPI suggest aside from passing the Martha Wright Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act, Congress ought to reform fees supporting the Universal Service Fund. This would reduce the cost of out of state calls by the current rate of 33 percent, supporting communications services for lower income individuals.  

The FCC, added PPI, can take immediate action to cease the prison phone companies’ practice of charging multiple transactions for one single transaction (double dipping), lower caps on ancillary fees, regulate the cost of video calling from both prisons and jails (take steps to clarify its authority to regulate calls), and collect data on call volume for both in state and out of state calls to see if companies are getting away with charging in state rates for those that are actually out of state. 

One option for state governments includes enacting legislation for providing agency sponsored calls for those in prisons and jails, which ought to include a “technological parity” (making video calling and services like electronic messaging free, to make sure that prisons and jails will not jump to find an option for the lost voice calling revenue),” Prison Policy Initiative opines.

PPI also suggests the passage of “moderate” reforms such as directing the Public Utilities Commission to cap rates and fees for in-state calls at amounts lower than the minute caps set by the FCC for out-of-state calls. (Lower caps for the instate calls would immediately lower costs for all calls as this immediately would additionally apply to out of state calls). 

About The Author

Audrey is a senior at UC San Diego majoring in Political Science (Comparative Politics emphasis). After graduation, Audrey plans on attending graduate school and is considering becoming a public defender.

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