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The movement for phone justice has won huge victories in state-run prisons, but people in jail pretrial are on the front lines of exploitation.

February 11, 2019

County and city jails frequently charge incarcerated people $1/minute or more for a phone call, far more than even the worst rates in state prisons, a new 50-state report finds. The Prison Policy Initiative report State of Phone Justice uncovers the cost of phone calls in over 2,000 jails nationwide, explaining why sheriffs sign lucrative phone contracts that prey on pretrial detainees.

“Jails have managed to escape the political pressure that forced many prisons to bring their rates down,” said co-author Peter Wagner. “We found that many jails are charging three, five or even 50 times as much as their state’s prisons would charge for the same phone call.” The report explains how:

  • Phone providers compete for jail contracts by offering sheriffs large portions of the revenue – and then charge exorbitant phone rates.
  • Providers exploit sheriffs’ lack of experience with telecommunications contracts to slip in hidden fees that fleece consumers.
  • State legislators, regulators and governors pay little attention to jails, even as they continue to lower the cost of calls home from state prisons.
U.S. map showing the highest jail phone rates in every state

“High phone rates impact everyone in jail, but those worst affected are people detained pretrial because they cannot afford bail,” co-author Alexi Jones said. “When someone has to organize their defense from jail, the cost of phone calls becomes extremely limiting, and that ultimately makes our justice system less fair.”

The report also includes:

  • A sortable table of the cost of phone calls in jails nationwide, as well as the provider each jail contracts with;
  • A table comparing the cost of prison phone calls in each state to the cost of jail phone calls;
  • Explanations of two specific profit-making tricks used by jail phone providers, which target the very poorest consumers at their moments of crisis (with explanatory comics by illustrator Kevin Pyle);
  • A timeline showing how the two largest phone providers, Securus and GTL, are locking facilities into perpetual contracts by buying up their competitors.

“If we’re going to tame the correctional phone market, we need sheriffs, state legislators, public utilities commissions and federal regulators to understand the significance of jail phone calls,” Wagner said.


Phone providers are so creative in their influence-peddling that the most viable reform strategies do not focus only on "commissions."

by Peter Wagner and Alexi Jones, February 11, 2019

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.

That’s why, today, prison and jail phone companies have learned to sustain themselves with revenue entirely separate from phone rates. The first of these hidden sources of revenue is consumer fees – fees to deposit money, open accounts, or get a refund.

The second source of revenue is a suite of unrelated, profitable services that the companies bundle into phone contracts, such as money transfer, commissary sales, video calls, emails, etc. Most recently, the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision signed a contract for over 50,000 “free” tablet computers, alongside its phone contract with Securus. (The tablets are, of course, not “free” for incarcerated people and their families, who pay to use the tablets and are generating millions in profit for Securus.)

Advertisement from a phone provider offering 100 percent commissions on phone revenue.Smart Communications promises the impossible. (What could go wrong?) Source: Screenshot from http://www.smartcommunications.us

Advertisement from a phone provider offering 100 percent commissions on phone revenue.Smart Communications promises the impossible. (What could go wrong?) Source: Screenshot from http://www.smartcommunications.us

The most extreme – and telling – example so far of the prison phone market’s reliance on extra services comes from a provider named Smart Communications. This year, the Florida-based company began marketing to facilities on a promise of “100% phone commissions.” The catch should be obvious: The provider makes money by bundling other profitable services into the contract, and sharing none of this additional revenue with the facilities.

Such extravagant promises reveal what providers have been doing all along: promising higher and higher commissions by relying more and more heavily on ancillary services and fees to boost profits.

 

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. From the perspective of the poor families paying for the calls, nothing has changed – phone rates remain high – but for the companies, disguising payments in this way makes it harder for journalists and advocates to track the kickbacks. These payments include:

As such, some of the prison and jail systems that have been widely hailed for refusing phone commissions do not, in our opinion, deserve the praise:

  • In 2007, the County Commissioners of Dane County, Wisconsin voted to ban the commissions that brought in nearly $1 million per year. The County Supervisor explained, “We’ve lost our moral compass and direction for a million bucks a year.” But in 2009 the county negotiated a new contract where instead of taking a commission, it would just take an “administrative fee” of $476,000 in monthly increments.
  • By statute, the California prison system does not take a percentage commission, but it’s quite happy to take cash and cell phone blocking equipment, which was expected to cost GTL between $16.5 million and $33 million to install. (It should also come as no surprise that states with lower phone rates have fewer problems with contraband cell phones and therefore have no need for jamming equipment.)
  • Since 2008, the Michigan Department of Corrections has refused percentage commissions. However, in 2011, they raised their rates1 and started requiring that their provider pay money into a “Special Equipment Fund.” As of 2018, this fund takes in $11 million per year, which would amount to a 57% commission. As a result — despite lowering their phone rates in 2018 — Michigan’s phone calls are more expensive calls than 23 states that take traditional commissions.2

Not all hope is lost, of course. Sheriffs and legislatures still have the power to clean up this mess and make the prison and jail phone industry fair for consumers. But to do so, they’ll have to start evaluating phone contracts differently, focusing on more than just percentage commissions. Sheriffs and legislators should also ask whether:

  1. Consumers are getting a good price for phone calls and ancillary fees.
  2. The phone contract prohibits the provider from steering calls to more expensive methods.
  3. The contract does not include other correctional services. (Bundling phone contracts with other things the facility needs makes it impossible for the facility and the families to determine whether the cost for each service is reasonable.)
  4. The contract does not include “free” products like tablets which are paid for through the sale of “premium” content.
  5. The contract specifically lists all rates, fees and charges. (It is unfortunately common for facilities to sign contracts without knowing what the provider is going to charge for ancillary fees, or for products that the providers label as “premium” or “convenience”.

Similarly, it can be really tempting to want to ban percentage commissions. We instead suggest two different ways to change the incentives behind these contracts:

  1. Require contracts to be negotiated on the basis of the lowest price to the consumer. (New York law does this for the state’s prison phone contract.)
  2. Cap commissions not as a percentage but as a fixed number of cents per minute, say 1 cent a minute. This approach maintains the problematic system of families subsidizing the correctional system, but is in improvement in that it gives the facilities an economic incentive to increase call volume and to monitor their provider for unnecessary fees and services that cut in to call revenue.

 

 

Suggested reading for more on the topics here:

  • See Prison phone provider accuses Florida Dept. of Corrections of using inmates’ families as a slush fund by Ben Conarck of the Florida Times-Union about how Florida “explicitly prohibited” contract bids that offered a percent commission, and then during negotiations demanded (and received from the winning bidder) a “wish list of goodies” instead of lower rates.
  • Our August 1, 2013 letter arguing that the Federal Communications Commission should take an expensive view of “commissions.”” This letter was written when we still thought it practical to prohibit all commissions, but the detail in our letter reviews many of the most egregious examples of commissions packaged under other names.
  • Our August 12, 2015 letter to the Federal Communications Commission with our investigation of the industry’s campaign contributions. We make the case that the FCC should focus on lowering the total cost of calls instead of chasing the infinite forms that commissions are taking.
  • Our article about the prison phone industry’s new business model: “fee harvesting.” In this 2015 article, we explain why the providers focus on fees and why the facilities have a a real but short-sighted incentive to look the other way.

Footnotes

  1. Rates changed from 10-12 cents a minute to 18-20 cents with the increase going to the “Special Equipment Fund.”  ↩
  2. These states are: Florida, Hawaii, Colorado, Wisconsin, Idaho, Nevada, Washington, Wyoming, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Maine, South Dakota, North Dakota, Texas, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Virginia, Delaware, Mississippi, Vermont, West Virginia, New Hampshire, and Illinois. The one bright spot in the Michigan contact is that it prohibits deposit fees, which the state estimates will save families $3 million per year. We don’t have a position on whether fee cuts or rate cuts are superior, but to make the best apples-to-apples comparisons, we compared other states to what we GTL would likely have set Michigan’s phone rates at with $3 deposit fees ($0.14/min).  ↩

The cost of jail phone calls punishes people in the most desperate circumstances, most of whom have not been convicted of a crime.

by Wendy Sawyer, February 5, 2019

It’s easy to see how people in state prison, who spend years or decades behind bars, are hurt by the cost of phone calls. But less obvious is how people in jail, who are usually behind bars for much shorter periods, can be hit even harder by the same cost.

The answer has to do with why people are in local jails in the first place. In many cases, it’s solely because they are poor. On a given day, 3 out of 4 people held in jails under local authority have not even been convicted, much less sentenced. Very often, they simply cannot afford the bail amount set by the court as a condition of release. (Men in jails reported earning a median of $17,676 per year before incarceration (in 2018 dollars). For women, the median pre-incarceration income was just $11,184 per year, well below the poverty line.)

When people can’t get together the funds to get out of jail, exorbitant phone rates only make a difficult time even harder. Pretrial detention is an extremely stressful experience; detainees are often at risk of losing their jobs, housing, and even custody of their children. Being locked up, even for a short time, can interrupt medical care and can exacerbate mental health problems. It’s no coincidence that suicide risk is highest in the first week of jail incarceration. Calls with loved ones are essential for people under these conditions, who may need to coordinate childcare or elder care, make arrangements for missing work, have prescriptions brought to the facility, or simply have someone to talk to while incarcerated. Expensive phone calls further punish people in jails – most of whom, again, have not been convicted of a crime.

Even beyond the potential damage to one’s health and personal affairs, pretrial detention also negatively affects case outcomes, and it’s in this way that high phone rates from jails do the most harm to the justice process itself. People who can’t afford money bail are forced to organize their defense from jail, where it is much harder to contact people who can help – and the cost of calling them from jail is even more limiting. In a 2016 opinion in a case about the proper use of phone calls in pretrial processes, Judge Jenny Rivera acknowledged the difficulty of preparing a defense while detained:

“Pretrial detention hampers a defendant’s preparation of his defense by limiting ‘his ability to gather evidence [and] contact witnesses’ during the most critical period of the proceedings…The detained suspect…lacks a similar ability [to a defendant free on bail or their own recognizance] to contact witnesses and gather evidence.”

People detained pretrial are more likely to plead guilty just to get out of jail, more likely to be convicted, and more likely to get longer sentences. Costly phone calls play a central role in this injustice by limiting how often and how long pretrial detainees can talk to their families and friends in the service of their defense. This makes it harder for defense attorneys to coordinate with family to build mitigation cases or track down witnesses. As a result, pretrial detainees often present a weaker defense than they would have if they had been able to make calls freely (or better, had not been detained in the first place).

Furthermore, on a systemic level, high phone rates from jails hurt indigent defendants by draining already-scarce resources from public defenders’ offices. As the Missouri State Public Defenders explained in a letter to the FCC, these offices pick up the tab for phone calls from clients in jail, which can add up to tens of thousands of dollars every year. In the long term, they say the cost “reduces our ability to communicate with our clients about their cases, diminishes the quality of representation we are able to provide, and thus risks denying clients their Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel.”

So jail phone companies (and jails themselves, which get kickbacks on these calls) are essentially subsidized by public defenders – and by extension, taxpayers – while public defenders are left with even fewer resources to help indigent clients. Ultimately, this, too, makes conviction more likely.

But, wait, you might ask, if you’ve been paying attention to this issue: Didn’t the government solve this problem years ago? Didn’t the FCC limit how expensive phone calls from correctional facilities could be?

Partly, yes: In 2014, the FCC set limits on rates for out-of-state calls from prisons and jails. But here too, unfortunately, people in jails get shortchanged. People in jails almost always make in-state calls, meaning that the FCC’s rate caps don’t apply to 92% of calls from jail. Instead of paying 21 cents or less per minute, as they would for out-of-state calls, people in jail calling loved ones in-state often still pay $1 per minute or more.

The cost of these calls continues to get less attention from regulators, journalists and the public than it deserves. There’s an irony in that: When poor people in jail can’t afford to make phone calls, the fairness of the justice system is distorted – and everyone pays an outsized price.



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