People in jails are using more phone minutes during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite decreased jail populations

Our study of 14 jails finds that there were 8% more overall minutes used during the pandemic, despite the fact that nationwide jail populations have fallen about 15%.

by Andrea Fenster, January 25, 2021

People in jails spent 8% more time on the phone over a three-month period of 2020 than in the same timeframe of 2019, according to data gathered from facilities around the country. This may come as a surprise, considering that there were fewer people behind bars to make these calls: jail populations have fallen about 15% on average since March, thanks to modest COVID-19 protection measures.

But, like the jail population reductions, the increase in phone minutes is attributable to COVID-19. Across the country, COVID-19 cases have ballooned in prisons and jails. Insufficient medical care, aging populations, poor preparedness, inability to social distance, and lack of sanitation combine in correctional facilities to create deadly conditions amidst a global pandemic. As a result, many jails have suspended in-person visitation, leaving phone and video calls as the main way for people to communicate with loved ones.

It makes sense, then, that more minutes were used in 2020 than 2019. This increase was attributable to both longer and more frequent calls: the number of calls increased by 3% and calls, on average, were 5% longer. These increases came despite the fact that many correctional facilities have used lockdowns as a COVID-19 prevention measure, which generally limit movement and phone access.

Calls from jails can be costly. For example, in one of the jails that provided data, in Pierce County, ND, a 15-minute call can cost $8.36. So when call volumes go up, billion-dollar companies like Securus–and the jails themselves–rake in the profits. Families around the country were already stretching their wallets to afford calls from their incarcerated loved ones. Now, during a pandemic that has caused mass unemployment, these phone bills are increasing as people accept longer and more frequent calls to help their loved ones maintain a lifeline to the outside world.

Methodology

To calculate changes in call volumes, we studied Securus Call Commission Reports from 2019 and 2020 in city and county jails across the nation. (We chose Securus both because it is the second-largest phone provider in prisons and jails, and because its reports are standardized across facilities, making them easy to compare.) To ensure that changes in the rates would not impact our results, we first identified Securus facilities where the per-minute call rates had not changed between our 2018 Phone Rates Survey and December 2020. We then sent record requests to 23 randomly-selected jails of varying populations, as well as 14 of the largest jails in the country, requesting each facility’s three most recent Call Commission Reports, as well as those for the same time period one year prior.

Ultimately, we received 14 complete responses as of January 21, 2021, from facilities ranging in average daily population from 12 to 3,844. 1 (The average daily population for each facility was gathered from Securus’s 2019 Annual Report to the FCC, filed October 23, 2020.)


Footnotes

  1. We received complete responses from Kern County, Calif.; Riverside County, Calif.; Polk County, Fla.; DeKalb County, Ga.; Fulton County, Ga.; Gwinnett County, Ga.; Penobscot County, Maine; New Hanover County, N.C.; Pierce County, N.D.; Cheshire County, N.H.; Clark County, Nev.; Henderson County, Nev.; Carver County, Minn.; and Crook County, Wyo.  ↩

Andrea Fenster is a Staff Attorney at the Prison Policy Initiative. (Other articles | Full bio | Contact)



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