Prison Phones: Making Millions by Draining Families
Prison Phones: Making Millions by Draining Families
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

    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.