At a time when the cost of a typical phone call is approaching zero, a few companies are charging millions of consumers — the families of people in prison — outlandish prices to stay in touch with their incarcerated loved ones. The cost of everyday communication is arguably the worst price-gouging that people behind bars and their loved ones face. We gathered data showing that while some jails have negotiated rates as low as 1 or 2 cents per minute — proving the possibility of much lower phone rates — the vast majority of jails charge 10 times that amount or more.

Why are the (mostly low-income) people who want to maintain a relationship with incarcerated loved ones forced to use services that charge shockingly high prices for basic communications technology? Because jails and prisons often choose their telecom providers on the basis of which company will pay the facility the most money in kickbacks. Combine the companies’ profit-seeking with the correctional facilities’ revenue-seeking, and the poorest families in the country end up paying higher rates to stay connected than anyone else.

Rates for telephone calls from prisons and jails have come down in recent years, thanks to regulatory action by the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”), efforts by some forward-thinking state legislators and regulatory bodies, and strong advocacy campaigns. But costs are still generally too high (especially in jails), some of the smaller telecom providers are charging way too much for in-state calls to landlines, and the larger companies are rapidly evolving their businesses to undermine all of this progress.

In this report:

  • We compile phone rates for almost every jail and prison in the country.
  • We provide a national-level update on how some of the phone companies are exploiting loopholes in the FCC’s rules around abusive add-on fees.
  • We sound the alarm that prison phone companies are evolving their services to evade existing regulations, specifically by creating and emphasizing other technologies like video calls and messaging, which inevitably come with hefty price tags.
  • We offer specific guidance to federal and state regulators and legislators.

Read the full article about phone justice by Peter Wagner and Wanda Bertram at Prison Policy Initiative.