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Filed 12:00 p.m.
02.25.2023
Closing Argument

Fighting the High Cost of Prison Phone Calls

Tired of exorbitant phone bills, prisoners and their families are pushing to lower costs.

A White woman in a pink jail uniform stands against a brick wall as she makes a phone call.
Linda Green, 51, makes her one phone call at Campbell County Jail in Jacksboro, Tenn. on March 29, 2018.

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A phone call from prison is more than just a phone call — it’s one of the few remaining tethers to the outside world. Studies show strong family connections for prisoners can reduce the chance they will end up behind bars again, and even improve outcomes for kids with incarcerated parents. But the high cost of prison calls forces many low-income families to choose between talking with their loved ones or paying other bills.

A growing movement across the country aims to ease that burden — in some cases, $3 for a 15-minute call from jail — if not covering the cost of calls entirely.

This week, Colorado lawmakers advanced a bill that would make all state prison calls free. Family members testified to spending thousands of dollars on calls and going into significant debt. Worth Rises, a group pushing for free prison phone calls across the country, estimates Coloradans spend nearly $9 million a year to talk to relatives in prison. And according to a report from the nonprofit Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, women disproportionately bear this financial burden — they make up 87% of family members paying for phone calls and visits.

If the bill passes, Colorado would be the third state to cover the cost of all state prison phone calls. Connecticut enacted such a law in 2021, and as of the new year, phone communication is free for nearly 100,000 California state prisoners and their families. According to Worth Rises’ testimony in Colorado, roughly 12 other states are considering similar legislation. The Virginia legislature rejected a similar proposal this month.

Major change is happening at the federal level, too. In January, President Biden signed the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act, named for a Washington, D.C. grandmother who fought for cheaper calls to her incarcerated grandson. The law allows the Federal Communications Commission to regulate the price of in-state prison phone calls across the country. Previously, the agency only set limits on interstate calls. The act also establishes the agency’s authority to regulate video calls, which can be as much as $8 for 20 minutes.

The legislation will go into effect in late 2024. This week, the FCC began deciding how to implement the law and set new nationwide caps. The agency will hold an open meeting in March to discuss the order.

The FCC tried to limit the price of in-state calls in 2015. But prison phone companies successfully sued to stop the order, winning a 2017 federal court decision. The new law makes explicit the FCC’s authority to regulate those calls.

In a December press release, Aventiv — the parent company of prison services provider Securus — said they now support the new law. “We believe it is long overdue for our industry to stop fighting with reform-minded legislators and regulators,” they wrote in a statement. “In stark contrast with many other providers of inmate communications services, we are aligned with Congress and the FCC on a shared vision of affordability, accessibility and thoughtful regulation.”

But before California voted to make calls free for families, Aventiv fought against the decision to lower in-state rates, saying it “did not account for the real costs associated with providing high-quality services, and instead placed an arbitrary, unempirical rate cap on calls.”

It's not just the price per minute that’s burdening families — staying in touch can come with countless hidden charges. In his recent State of the Union, President Biden promised to take on companies who slap extra fees on consumers, including phone providers. “I know how unfair it feels when a company overcharges you and gets away with it,” he said.

Mike Wessler, communications director at the non-profit group Prison Policy Initiative, notes that incarcerated people should be at the center of this effort. Beyond telephone calls, other ways that people keep in touch — email services, tablets, video visitation — are also known to charge exorbitant rates.

Calls from county jail can be particularly expensive. Cid Standifer, a reporter at The Marshall Project in Cleveland, recently found a phone call from the Cuyahoga County jail costs eight times more than from any Ohio state prison. It’s not only prison phone companies like Securus with an interest in these high rates — the Cuyahoga County jail made roughly $300,000 in commissions off the contract. In 2018, New York City became the first city to pay for all jail calls. Since then, San Francisco, Miami, Louisville, Kentucky and other cities have done the same.

Prison wages alone can’t pay for phone calls home, when the average wage tops out at 52 cents an hour. One Colorado prisoner, whose testimony was read in a recent legislative hearing, spoke of having to choose between calls to his children and buying toothpaste or deodorant from the commissary.

The federal government has already experimented with making prison calls free. During the pandemic, people incarcerated by the Bureau of Prisons have had 500 minutes of free calls per month, paid for under the pandemic relief CARES Act. With in-person visitation on hold, phone calls were truly the only link for families. But when the state of emergency for COVID ends in May, this benefit will likely expire.

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Christie Thompson Twitter Email is a staff writer reporting on mental health, solitary confinement, and prison conditions. Her investigative series with NPR examining violence in double-celled “solitary confinement” won a George Polk Award for Justice Reporting and was a finalist for an IRE Award and the John Bartlow Martin Award.