A whole generation has come of age unfamiliar with phone booths and other means of communicating in the pre-cell phone era. Pay phones are still a staple of local jails, and the fees charged inmates to make such calls are often exorbitant. One 15-minute phone call will often cost an inmate over $20. Many of these inmates have not been convicted of any crime, and are in jail because they cannot afford their bail.
It’s safe to say that those who cannot come up with bail money probably can’t pay for pricey phone calls, so their ability to communicate with loved ones during this difficult time is limited. The problem is not so acute in state prisons – which house convicted criminals – since their telecommunications systems fall under state and federal regulations. For example, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) limits the cost of out-of-state phone calls from prison to 21 cents per minute.
A Sampling of Local Jail Phone Costs
In local jails, calls made to parties in the same state may cost a dollar per minute or more. In New York, a 15-minute phone call from an inmate to a friend or relative will run about $22.42, while a similar call made from an Arkansas jail in-state costs $24.82.
In Michigan, an inmate should expect to pay $22.56 for such a call, and in neighboring Illinois, the price of a jail phone call compared to one from a state prison is a shocking 52 times higher. That 15-minute phone call from a Michigan jail would cost an inmate in a Michigan prison just $2.40.
These prohibitive rates mean that inmates, still awaiting an appearance in court, cannot afford to contact family members who can help with bail or other circumstances, including childcare.
Many of these inmates did not commit a crime and they are considered innocent at the time they are trying to make phone calls from inside the jail. Even if they are released, they may find themselves unemployed or evicted, partly based on the inability to pay for communications during their stay in the facility.
Where the Money Goes
Who receives the money from these extortionate phone calls? Generally, it’s the company installing the telecommunication system in the facility. Companies specializing in prison phone systems often install their hardware for very little money – or even for free – because they know they can charge inmates high rates to make a profit.
Fees of various types are also added to communications costs. These hidden fees might include services such as opening and funding an account, closing the account, and receiving a statement via paper rather than digitally. The FCC once called such fees “the chief source of consumer abuse.” In some situations, part of the phone fees goes back to the local or state agencies running the jails.
Contracting between prison and jail providers is a major reason for the phone call price differential. Prisons have the ability to run cost-benefit analyses of contracts, while smaller jails, under the jurisdiction of local governments, simply do not have the staff or expertise to negotiate such contracts.
The Digital World
The digital world is expanding on the local jail level, and it, too, is far more expensive than on the outside. Increasingly, jails charge prohibitive rates for video conferencing, digital books, music, and email. That holds true even though the criminal justice system prefers that inmates receive this type of media digitally because drugs and other contraband aren’t passed digitally as may prove the case with books and face-to-face visits.
Bucking the Trend
Last year, inmates in New York City jails made phone calls free to inmates contacting their homes. Nebraska’s phone fees for prison inmates is just 1 cent per minute. These jurisdictions realize that free or low phone fees help the most impoverished families whose members find themselves incarcerated.
New York City will no longer bear the cost of billing inmates for phone calls, the free calls are actually a savings. While it is unlikely most local jails will switch to free calls for inmates, negotiating better, fairer contracts will help end this communication injustice.
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