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Despite outrage, local jails are still charging exorbitant rates for phone calls

Despite outrage, local jails are still charging exorbitant rates for phone calls
[Photo: Flickr user Tim Dorr]

If you find yourself awaiting trial in a local jail in Arkansas, you and your friends or relatives could end up spending up to $24.82 for a single 15-minute phone call, according to a new report from the Prison Policy Initiative.

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Calls of the same length from local jails in Michigan can cost up to $22.56 and in New York can cost up to $22.42, according to the report.

While the cost of making calls from state prisons, which mostly house people already convicted of a crime, have fallen in the past few years thanks to regulation by state legislatures and the Federal Communications Commission, local jails haven’t seen the same price declines, according to the report. In Illinois, for example, jail calls can cost 52 times what prison calls cost. Many of those people housed in jails haven’t been convicted of a crime and are simply awaiting trial, sometimes because they can’t afford bail.

“Charging pretrial defendants high prices for phone calls punishes people who are legally innocent, drives up costs for their appointed counsel, and makes it harder for them to contact family members and others who might help them post bail or build their defense,” according to the report. “It also puts them at risk of losing their jobs, housing, and custody of their children while they are in jail awaiting trial.”

Many correctional institutions also charge additional fees to inmates’ loved ones when they load up prison calling accounts with their credit or debit cards. They often charge even more to use services like MoneyGram or Western Union often used by people without bank accounts, according to the report.

Part of fees for phone calls and other services like prison videoconferencing goes to prison phone companies that sometimes install telecom networks in prisons for free or on the cheap, knowing they’ll make money back as inmates and their outside contacts pay for services. Some deals also give a portion of the calling fees back to the state or county agencies that run prisons and jails.

Newer digital services, like videoconferencing, email, or digital books and music, also often cost significantly more than they would in the outside world. In some cases, they’ve come to replace traditional media like paperback books and even in-person visits.

Correctional officials and phone companies often point to the high cost of installing, securing, and maintaining telecom service in prisons and argue videoconferencing and email can still be cheaper for inmates and families than physical letters or in-person visits, which can require people to take off work and pay for transportation. Limiting books and visits also helps keep contraband like weapons and drugs out of prisons, they argue.

I previously talked to prison officials and executives at Securus and GTL, the leading prison telecom companies, as well as activists about the digital transformation in prison communications.

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