Why Does It Cost $18 To Make A Call From Prison?

by Justine Sharrock on November 19, 2013

It’s a monopoly, fueled by government kickbacks. The FCC says it’s fixing the problem, but things still look bleak.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

For more than 15 years, the cost of a prison phone call has been as high as $18 for just 15 minutes of talk time. While it has varied over time and state by state, in Georgia, for example, rates can reach 89 cents per minute, with an additional per-call charge as high as $3.95. And that doesn’t even include the many extra costs for using the phone system. There are flat fees every time you add money to your prepaid account. There are high connection fees. Often calls are dropped — if you pause in conversation, for example, the connection may cut off — and the user has to pay another fee to call back.

Things are set to change this month with the FCC's August ruling that will cap inmate call prices at 21 cents a minute for debit or prepaid calls, and 25 cents a minute for collect calls — which is still a high price compared with the cost of calls in the outside world.

2013 Prices Before the FCC Ruling

2013 Prices Before the FCC Ruling

PrisonPolicy.org / Via prisonpolicy.org

The ruling comes after over a decade of challenges, including a petition signed by tens of thousands of people. In the ruling, the FCC says it provides “long overdue, steps to provide relief to the millions of Americans who have borne the financial burden of unjust and unreasonable interstate inmate phone rates.”

The price tag can’t be explained by expensive technology alone. Yes, prison phones may have recording capabilities, monitoring, and tailored alerts — so the prison knows when certain calls are made — as well as blocks to certain numbers, and even, in some cases, biometrics. But up to 60% of the money spent on calls goes toward what are known as “commissions,” which are essentially kickbacks from the phone companies to the prison system. In 42 states, when companies bid for the contract to build and run a state's prison phone system, they have to include what cut of the profits from inmates paying for calls will go to the correction department. It's a setup similar to vending machines in public schools: For each soda sold, a certain amount of money goes to the school district.

The prison commissions can be a combination of a percentage of gross revenue, a signing bonus, a monthly fixed amount, yearly fixed amount, often with a minimum guarantee, or in-kind donations like computers. In 2012, those state prison systems collectively received $103.9 million in commissions from the companies.

Instead of picking a company that has the lowest price or the best service, these bids tend to go to companies that offer the highest commissions to the prison. This has resulted in a monopoly, with three companies — Global Tel-Link, Securus, and Century Link — dominating 80% of the market.

Why should you care? Regular contact with families and friends back home is proven to be a major factor in rehabilitation and successful reentry after prison, and it reduces the likelihood of recidivism. Given the disproportionately low income of inmates, this cost is prohibitive.

“I am being held incommunicado from my own family — my only source of inspiration, hope and support other than God,” wrote Texas state prisoner Danny Bonds in a letter to blog Between the Bars last year. “It has also caused me and my family to suffer prolonged disappointment, grief, and serious disintegration, destruction and loss of our family integrity and unit.” Bonds has been locked up since 1989 but has been able to make only three long-distance phone calls to his family due to the costs; his family just doesn't have the money.

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Originally Posted By BuzzFeed - Tech

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