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Giving Compass' Take:
• The authors examine the problems with the prison and jail phone market, and how the prison system has responded to these issues.
• The authors maintain that sheriffs and legislatures need to address the problem by evaluating phone contracts to make them more fair for consumers. How can donors play a role in supporting these efforts?
• Read more about the impact of high costs of phone calls from jail.
The prison and jail phone industry is rife with problems – from sky-high phone rates to inexplicable consumer fees to expensive and unnecessary “premium services” – and all of these problems can be traced to a single moment in the industry’s history: When the companies decided to start offering facilities a percentage of their revenue in order to win contracts.
Before long, jails and prisons were prioritizing commissions over low rates when choosing a phone provider. This didn’t just saddle incarcerated people and their families with higher phone rates – it created two major problems for the companies, both of which have caused the market to spiral into dysfunction.
Problem 1: The arms race for higher commissions
Prison phone companies started offering commissions to jails and prisons in order to win contracts from companies that didn’t offer them. What they didn’t expect was that sheriffs would become dependent on this new income. The companies were forced into an “arms race,” competing to give away more and more of their revenue from phone calls; the proffered commissions inched ever closer to 100%.
The companies had painted themselves into a corner: How do you make a profit when you’ve given virtually all of your revenue away? Their solution: Find another source of revenue and hide it from the facility’s management.
Problem 2: Circumventing new regulations
Gradually, the public has come to understand that there is an inherent conflict of interest when facilities award monopoly contracts and then reap a percentage of the revenue. As a result, the commission system started to fall out of favor. Some – though far from all – state legislatures started to prohibit percentage-based commissions.
But legislatures left open a critical loophole: They didn’t prohibit companies from offering all improper perks to facilities – only commissions.
Instead of paying a fixed percentage of their revenue to the facilities, the companies now use the extra revenue to issue kickbacks in other forms.
Read the full article about the prison and jail phone market by Peter Wagner and Alexi Jones at Prison Policy Initiative