Families with loved ones incarcerated in New York State prisons pay some of the lowest phone fees in the entire country. Meanwhile, those with loved ones in the state’s county jails have some of the highest phone costs. How can this be?

It’s all about the incentives. In 2007, New York State passed progressive legislation requiring contracts between state prisons and private phone companies to be negotiated “for the lowest price to the consumer,” and prohibiting the department of corrections from accepting commissions on phone calls. (Nationwide, the commission-based structure of correctional phone calls is a major factor driving up costs for the consumer.) New York’s legislation, however, does not apply to county and city jails, meaning counties are free to choose the phone company that charges the most and kicks the most revenue back to the jail. As a result of this loophole, the average 15-minute call from a New York jail costs seven times more than an identical call from a state prison.

These exorbitant phone rates cost some the poorest residents of New York State — and a group disproportionately made up of women of color — more than $13 million a year just to talk to their jailed loved ones. The role played by counties in driving up these costs is clearly demonstrated in our new dataset of commission percentages paid by phone companies to New York county jails. We found that the majority of the cost of an average jail phone call — 64 cents on the dollar — is kicked back from the service provider to the county or jail. In some counties, as much as 86% of jail phone call revenue ends up in the pockets of the county government.

Read the full article about the price of calls from jail and prison by Katie Rose Quandt and Andrea Fenster at Prison Policy Initiative.