How many jails have eliminated in-person visits? How much of a kickback does your average jail get from its telecom providers? How common are tablets in jails and what fees do incarcerated people pay to use them? Because the thousands of local jails in the U.S. are independently run, it’s hard to get comprehensive data to answer questions like these. So it’s encouraging to see two resources get published — out of Michigan and Minnesota, respectively — that will help fill the gap. I summarized my own takeaways from these reports in this blog post.

In Michigan, independent researcher Phil Lombard (using data obtained by requesting jail phone contracts in 40 counties) produced detailed spreadsheets showing the rates county jails are charging incarcerated people and their families for a variety of communication services, and the kickbacks these counties get from their providers. And in Minnesota, following the state legislature’s move last year to make prison phone calls free, the state Ombuds for Corrections published a report in September with similar data from 26 county jails, proving the necessity of reform for jails as well as prisons.

Both of these resources draw on a large and diverse sample of counties — large and small, urban and rural, and geographically varied — making it possible for researchers and activists to generalize from their findings about the state of telecommunications policy in local jails.

So what do the data show?

Video calling and e-messaging costs are desperately in need of regulation.

In both Michigan and Minnesota jails, the cost of these non-phone services vary widely. A 20-minute video call in Minnesota can cost between $3 and $10 (equating to as much as $0.50/minute); in Michigan, between $3 and $20 (or as much as $1/minute). E-messaging in both states ranges from just 9 or 10 cents per message to a bizarre $2 per message. As we have pointed out before about phone calls, the wide range of rates for these services is due to the fact that companies set prices based on profit-seeking, rather than on the cost of delivering the services.

In-person visits and physical mail are disappearing in jails.

In Michigan, coincidentally, a coalition of public interest law firms is currently suing St. Clair and Genesee counties for their practice of banning visits and then cashing in on greater kickbacks from video calling. The new data show that this practice is not a novelty, but the norm in jails today.

The costs families pay would drop dramatically if jails didn’t take commissions.

Some of the most valuable data in these two new reports are the numbers showing that a substantial amount — even, in some counties, the majority — of the money families pay to telecom companies is directly kicked back to the counties themselves.

Read the full article about the cost of family contact in local jails by Wanda Bertram at Prison Policy Initiative.