Phones archives

Amidst a pandemic and recession, policymakers should be fighting for extended — if not permanent — financial relief for incarcerated people and their families.

by Wanda Bertram, September 11, 2020

Covid-19 has put people with loved ones behind bars in a difficult bind: In-person visits are risky (and have been suspended in many places), but families have to pay in order to stay connected remotely through phone and video calls. For the past several months, some state and local governments have provided relief for these families in the form of occasional free calls. But now, as the pandemic still rages, many facilities are phasing them out.

We checked in on several counties and states that offered free calls at the beginning of the pandemic, and found that many have ended or curtailed the practice. Middlesex County, Massachusetts stopped offering free calls last week. Delaware appears to have ended free phone calls in August; Vermont ended free video calls in June. California, which in April offered three “free calling days” per week, has reduced its offering to two days per month. Pennsylvania has reduced its offer from five free phone calls a week to just one.

Officials may say (as in Middlesex County, MA) that they are phasing out free calls because they are bringing back in-person visits. But for many families, visits still aren’t safe. Family members with medical vulnerabilities may not be able to leave their homes, especially to travel to correctional facilities, which are hotbeds of viral spread. These families depend on phone and video calls as much as they would if in-person visits were still prohibited.

Even people who feel comfortable resuming in-person visits are likely still paying for more phone calls than they did before the pandemic. For one thing, in-person visits may be coming back very slowly, with only a limited number of visits available. What’s more, even where visits are fully restored, the stress of the pandemic means that most families need more communication than normal. People with friends or family behind bars need to stay up to date on their loved ones’ health and provide emotional support, especially given that chronic illnesses that make people vulnerable to the virus are more common behind bars.

The pandemic is making communication more important. Meanwhile, a recession is making communication less affordable. Even in normal times, one in three families with an incarcerated loved one go into debt paying for phone calls and visits, and 50% struggle to pay for basic housing and food needs. Withdrawing free calls now will hurt these already-needy families when they can least afford it.

In the short term, free calls should be extended as long as the pandemic and recession persist. Facilities with welfare funds for incarcerated people (ironically often funded by revenue from phone calls) should draw on these funds, if necessary, to cover the costs charged by phone and video providers. (Some welfare funds have large unspent balances.) Facilities should also pressure their providers to offer more calls free of charge, or at lower rates. Counties and states have plenty of negotiating power with their telecom providers to bring rates down — as evidenced by Dallas’s new cent-a-minute jail phone rates and Denton County, Texas’s dime-a-minute video calls.

But temporary free calls are just a stopgap measure. People with loved ones behind bars need permanent relief from the high cost of keeping in touch. The pandemic should provide an opportunity for states and counties to make long-term changes, such as renegotiating their contracts with telecom providers to secure lower rates, and ending the practice of taking kickbacks from the companies (which drives up the cost of calls for consumers). State legislatures and local governments can also pass bills to make phone calls from prison and jail cheaper or free — in California and Massachusetts, such legislation is currently on the table. Ultimately, the policymakers in charge of jail and prison communications should not be prematurely attempting to “return to normal.” Instead, policymakers should be fighting for a fairer future.


S.2846 will make phone calls free of cost for incarcerated people and their families in Massachusetts.

by Jenny Landon, September 4, 2020

The Prison Policy Initiative joined a coalition of over 100 organizations, legal service providers, public defenders, social workers, and directly impacted people to sign on to a letter urging the Massachusetts State Legislature to pass S.2846, a bill that would make phone calls free of cost for incarcerated people and their families.

The burden of expensive phone calls overwhelmingly falls on family members, especially on women: in Massachusetts, families pay $24 million per year to stay connected to their incarcerated loved ones, and a national study found that the cost will put one in three families into debt. Black and brown people in Massachusetts are disproportionately criminalized and targeted by police, so expensive phone calls to correctional institutions disproportionately strip money out of the pocketbooks of families of color.

Before the pandemic hit, more than 50 percent of families with an incarcerated loved one struggled to pay for basic housing and food needs. With the economic hardship brought on by COVID-19, it is now urgent that Massachusetts stops subsidizing our exploitative and expensive carceral system with regressive costs that fall on the most impoverished in the state.

In Massachusetts, there are thousands of people held in jails pre-trial because they cannot afford bail, and their phone calls are the most expensive of all incarcerated people in the state. When people can’t get together the funds to get out of jail, exorbitant phone rates only make a difficult time even harder. Not only do people held pre-trial 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, they also have to organize their defense.

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. As a result, pretrial detainees often present a weaker defense than they would have if they had been able to make calls freely. On a systemic level, high phone rates from jails hurt indigent defendants by draining already-scarce resources from public defenders’ offices.

As written in the full letter:

As a result of the work of Black organizers, constituents across the Commonwealth understand that no-cost calls are about keeping families together. People should not be forced to pay for a lifeline, nor the programs offered by the DOC and county facilities. It is unconscionable that in this moment a mother is forced to choose between buying groceries and talking to her incarcerated child or that a child would need to forego hearing his incarcerated mother’s voice when they most need comfort. The Commonwealth must intervene to ensure that corporations can no longer profit from lines of communication that are critical to creating the support networks necessary for success upon reentry. We respectfully ask you to pass S. 2846 this session!

For these reasons and many more, we urge the Massachusetts State Legislature to pass S.2846. Are you in Massachusetts and want to support this bill? Call your representatives and senators!


Send our letter to your local jail, asking them to make video and phone calls free.

by Bernadette Rabuy and Wanda Bertram, March 17, 2020

As jails and prisons across the country suspend in-person visits to slow the spread of COVID-19, families are being rapidly cut off from their incarcerated loved ones. Phone calls and video calls are now the only option for anxious families trying to stay in touch. It’s more important than ever that these calls be available at no cost.

We prepared a template letter for local advocates fighting to preserve family contact in jails during the COVID-19 pandemic. Advocates are encouraged to customize our letter as needed and send it to their county sheriff or jail warden or administrator. The full text of the letter is below, and a shorter version of the letter follows (for people in counties where public comments must be under 300 words).

Dear [Sheriff/Warden name],

Your office recently took the step of [suspending/restricting] in-person visitation at [jail name] to prevent the spread of COVID-19. While there is no question that in-person visitation can be risky at this time, incarcerated people and their families must be able to communicate in order to endure this trying, confusing, and constantly evolving pandemic.

We are writing to request your leadership in protecting incarcerated people and their loved ones by providing phone and video calls free of cost for at least thirty days – as sheriffs have done in the past on special occasions, such as Christmas, and as has been recommended by prosecutors nationwide. Other counties, such as Shelby County, Tennessee, have already taken this simple and critical step.

As you know, there is a general panic as cases of COVID-19 spread. Incarcerated people’s loved ones are even more likely to be concerned. Correctional facilities are filled with people with chronic illnesses and complex medical needs; these people are at a particularly high risk for serious complications from infections like COVID-19. Moreover, it can be difficult for correctional facilities to prevent unsanitary and overcrowded conditions, which also put people at risk for COVID-19.

While the decision to halt visits may be best for public health reasons, it puts loved ones in a bind. Families are forced to check in with their incarcerated loved ones by paying for phone or video calls. But incarcerated people and their loved ones are disproportionately low-income, and likely to be employed in fields most impacted financially by social distancing. Unless you make changes, families will likely have to choose between purchasing essential groceries or a phone call with Mom or Dad.

If [jail name] has a welfare fund for incarcerated people or has otherwise collected commissions from the fees charged for communication services, instituting a policy of free calls would be the best immediate use of that funding. You may even discover unexpected benefits to a temporary policy of free calls: For example, increased communication with loved ones has been shown to reduce misconduct in facilities by lowering anxiety and tension. Stability may be one reason jurisdictions like New York City have shifted to free phone calls permanently.

With tensions running high in [jail name] as well as in our communities, waiving the costs of phone and video calls is a simple step your office can take to provide comfort to families and protect public safety, both in and outside of the jail. Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Shorter version:

Dear [Sheriff/Warden name],

Your office recently took the step of [suspending/restricting] in-person visitation at [jail name] to prevent the spread of COVID-19. While in-person visitation can be risky at this time, incarcerated people and their families must be able to communicate in order to endure this constantly evolving pandemic.

We are writing to request your leadership in protecting incarcerated people and their loved ones by providing phone and video calls free of cost for at least 30 days – as other counties have done, and as has been recommended by prosecutors nationwide.

With visitation halted, families are forced to check in with their incarcerated loved ones by paying for phone or video calls. But incarcerated people and their families are disproportionately low-income, and likely to be employed in fields most impacted financially by social distancing. Unless you make changes, families will likely have to choose between purchasing essential groceries or a phone call with Mom or Dad.

If [jail name] has a welfare fund for incarcerated people or has otherwise collected commissions from communication services, a policy of free calls would be the best immediate use of that funding. You may even discover unexpected benefits, like how increased communication with loved ones has been shown to reduce misconduct in facilities by lowering anxiety and tension. Stability may be one reason jurisdictions like New York City have shifted to free phone calls permanently.

With tensions running high in [jail name] and in our communities, waiving the costs of phone and video calls is a simple step your office can take to provide comfort to families and protect public safety, both in and outside of the jail. Thank you for your attention to this matter.


High prison rates, high jail rates, high first minute charges, and more

by Peter Wagner and Alexi Jones, September 11, 2019

It can be hard to figure out where to start to improve phone justice in each state, especially in the states where legislators, regulators, or individual correctional facilities have already instituted partial reforms. For that reason, we’ve re-organized our national survey of in-state phone rates in to this handy map showing the biggest remaining issues in each state:

color coded map of the United States showing the biggest priorities for prison and jail phone justice in 40 of the states as of 2019

No state is perfect on prison and jail telephone issues, and there are many ways to measure “how bad” a state’s prison and jail phone rates are. Some states have good phone rates if they are measured by one criterion, but terrible if measured by a different one. For example, the Minnesota Department of Corrections charges only $0.75 for a 15-minute in-state call from state prison, but the jails in the state charge, on average, $7.19 for the same call. To give a more complete picture of how, exactly, each state is failing, we compiled data on five different measures of prison and jail phone justice (see Table 1 below). For states that rate poorly on multiple measures, the map above offers our opinion about which issue is most important and actionable in that state.

Table 1. How each state fares on five measures of phone justice.
State State prisons still charge $3.00 or more for a fifteen-minute in-state call (See Table 2) The average rate charged by jails is $6.00 or more for a fifteen-minute in-state call (See Table 3) Calls from county jails are far more expensive than calls from the state prison (See Table 4) At least one jail charges $12.00 or more for a fifteen-minute in-state call (See Table 5) Jails typically charge far more for the first minute of calls than additional minutes (See Table 6)
Alabama X
Alaska X
Arizona X
Arkansas X X X
California X
Colorado X X X
Connecticut X
Delaware
Florida X
Georgia
Hawaii
Idaho X
Illinois X X X X
Indiana X X X
Iowa X X X
Kansas X X X
Kentucky X
Louisiana X
Maine
Maryland X
Massachusetts X
Michigan X X X
Minnesota X X X
Mississippi X
Missouri X X X
Montana X X X
Nebraska X X X
Nevada X
New Hampshire X X
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York X X
North Carolina X
North Dakota X X X
Ohio
Oklahoma X X X
Oregon X
Pennsylvania X X
Rhode Island
South Carolina X
South Dakota X X
Tennessee X X
Texas X X X X
Utah X X
Vermont
Virginia X X
Washington X
West Virginia
Wisconsin X X
Wyoming X X
Table 2. Most expensive state prison rates for in-state calls (showing states were the cost is $3 or more)
State 15-Minute Rate from State Prison
Alabama $3.34
Alaska $3.15
Arizona $3.34
Arkansas $4.80
Connecticut $3.65
Indiana $3.60
Kentucky $3.15
Louisiana $3.15
Oklahoma $3.00

 

Table 3. Average rate charged by jails in each state for in-state calls (showing the most expensive states)
State Average rate for 15-minute call from jail
Arkansas $14.19
Colorado $6.50
Illinois $7.11
Indiana $6.31
Iowa $7.03
Kansas $8.49
Michigan $12.03
Minnesota $7.19
Missouri $6.90
Montana $9.24
Nebraska $8.02
New York $7.79
North Dakota $7.62
Oklahoma $6.34
South Dakota $7.11
Texas $6.53
Wisconsin $7.99
Wyoming $7.77

 

Table 4. How much more expensive are jail phone calls in each state compared to prison calls? (Comparing the cost of 15-minute in-state calls and showing states where jail phone calls cost at least 5 times as much as prison calls.)
State Disparity between average cost of jail call vs. a state prison call
Illinois 52.7
Maryland 5.8
Michigan 5
Minnesota 9.6
Mississippi 9.6
Missouri 9.2
Nebraska 8.5
New Hampshire 23.2
New York 12
North Dakota 6.4
South Carolina 6.9
South Dakota 5.9
Texas 7.3
Virginia 7.4

 

Table 5. Highest cost for a call in each state (Showing states where at least one jail charges more than $12 for an in-state call)
State Highest 15-Minute Rate
Arkansas $24.82
California $17.80
Colorado $14.85
Idaho $17.25
Illinois $15.52
Indiana $15.15
Iowa $14.10
Kansas $18.62
Michigan $22.56
Minnesota $12.02
Missouri $20.12
Montana $14.68
Nebraska $15.80
Nevada $14.25
North Carolina $12.00
North Dakota $12.00
Oklahoma $18.87
Oregon $15.75
Pennsylvania $12.20
Tennessee $14.29
Texas $17.25
Utah $15.06
Virginia $14.65
Washington $17.35
Wisconsin $21.97
Wyoming $14.22

 

Table 6. How much more expensive is the first minute of a jail call with subsequent minutes? For example, many jails in New York charge $4.35 for the first minute and $0.40
for subsequent minutes, for a disparity of almost 11 times.) Setting higher first minute rates is a complicated but particularly exploitative practice. (Showing the average disparity between first and subsequent minutes in each state where the first minute cost is at 7 or more times higher than subsequent minutes. States like New York where some or many counties have high first/subsequent minute disparities are not included if the state’s average disparity was less than 7. For county-by-county data, see our 2018 Phones Rate Survey.)
State Disparity between first minute and subsequent minutes
Colorado 25.04
Florida 7.8
Illinois 8.98
Iowa 9.29
Kansas 25.47
Massachusetts 20.26
Montana 22.84
New Hampshire 9.65
Pennsylvania 7.04
Tennessee 22.49
Texas 15.03
Utah 33.16

 

For even more detailed data for individual facilities in each state, see these appendix tables from our State of Phone Justice report:

Now that leaders and advocates in each state have easy access to the biggest issues standing in the way of phone justice in their states, it’s time to get moving on making justice a reality.


As more jails ban face-to-face visits in favor of paid video chats, a growing number of people in jail are being cut off from their families when the technology breaks down.

by Sarah Watson, June 18, 2019

Jails are increasingly replacing in person visits with video calls. This high-tech fad goes against the recommendations of the American Correctional Association, the American Bar Association, and even the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections. These jails ignore the many problems we’ve documented, such as high costs for families, poor quality of the systems and the loss of human contact. But there’s another liability that jails now have to consider: What happens when their shiny new technology fails?

Their vendors — who provide the systems for free in exchange for charging high rates to the families — will say that their technology is perfect. As every person who owns a computer knows, however, technology is not flawless, and these systems do fail — sometimes keeping people in jail from contacting their families for weeks at a time:

We surveyed recent news stories about video systems breaking in jails that had chosen to replace traditional in-person visits with the technology.
County State Time Down Year Details Source
Shelby County Jail (Memphis) Tennessee 2 weeks 2019 The vendor (GTL) cut a fiber optic cable Source
Virginia Beach Correctional Center Virginia 3 months 2018 Jail typically averages 4,000 visits a month Source1 Source2
Williams County Correctional Center North Dakota 2 months 2017 System updates originally brought the system down, then it was discovered the upgrade was incompatible with the old equipment Source
Milwaukee County Jail Wisconsin At least one month 2013-2014 Visual went down leaving only audio Source
Boone County Jail Arkansas “months” 2018 Either a lightning strike or a software glitch brought the system down, administrators were not sure which was the cause. Source
Volusia County Branch Jail Florida One month 2017 Lightning struck an integral part of the visitation system. It took multiple technicians to conclude the entire system needed to be replaced. Source
Pontotoc County Justice Center Oklahoma Three weeks 2017 Visitation went down due to a “computer issue.” Source
Madison County Detention Center (Huntsville) Alabama >2 weeks 2017 Planned system updates meant visits were suspended. Source
Montgomery County Detention Facility Alabama About a week 2018 “Technical Issues” disrupted visitation as the jail waited for a replacement machine. Source
Olmsted County Adult Detention Center (Rochester) Minnesota 1 day 2018 The visitation system crashed, leaving visitors unable to schedule a visit or see their loved ones. The sheriff also confirmed the system sometimes goes down due to weather conditions as well. Source
Ada County Jail Idaho 2019 Ada County Jail experiences consistent technical issues. One visitor to Ada County Jail recalled, “It didn’t work half the time. You’d have to call to see if [the system] was down.” Source
Mecklenburg County Jail (Charlotte) North Carolina 2017 Frequent problems and system outages caused prisoners to miss their visits. “The video chat would go in and out. Sometimes half the screen would be cut off, and sometimes they wouldn’t work at all,” a former prisoner remembered. “You wouldn’t even get your visitation; you would have to wait until the next week, because even though the system was down, they would not make up the visitation you missed.” Source

The good news is that counties are starting to take notice of the downsides to video calling. Most recently, the sheriff of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina (see table above) fulfilled a 2018 campaign promise to reinstate in-person visits, on the grounds that video should be used in addition to in person visits, not as a substitute.

“Allowing our residents to stay connected to family and loved ones through in-person visits improves public safety,” Sheriff McFadden explained. “This simple step alone has been shown to significantly lower the chances that a person will commit another crime after they get out. It also reduces the chance a person will commit an infraction inside the jail which could adversely impact their release. In addition, it improves mental health outcomes and strengthens family units and community ties.”

Mecklenburg County had the right idea. When this technology works, it should be considered a supplement to in-person visits, not a substitute; and when the technology fails, it’s useless. Instead of investing in flawed technology, jails should be looking for more ways to increase traditional methods of family contact.


A merger between the two companies would have curtailed the ability of prisons and jails to choose a phone provider, to the detriment of incarcerated people and their families.

April 2, 2019

Easthampton, Mass. – Prison phone industry giant Securus has abandoned its attempt to purchase ICSolutions, the industry’s third largest company, after the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division signaled that they would likely block the deal. The merger would have effectively handed the market for prison and jail phone services over to Securus and its last major competitor, GTL.

“Based on a record of nearly 1 million documents comprised of 7.7 million pages of information submitted by the applicants, as well as arguments and evidence submitted by criminal justice advocates, consumer groups, and other commenters, FCC staff concluded that this deal posed significant competitive concerns and would not be in the public interest,” said FCC chairman Ajit Pai in a press release.

“Securus and ICS [Inmate Calling Solutions] have a history of competing aggressively to win state and local contracts by offering better financial terms, lower calling rates, and more innovative technology and services. This merger would have eliminated that competition, plain and simple,” said Makan Delrahim, Assistant Attorney General of the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division in a press release. “The companies’ decision to abandon this deal is the right outcome – correctional facilities, inmates and their friends and families will continue to benefit from the robust competition between these firms.”

“All too often, calls home from jails cost an unconscionable $1/minute,” said Peter Wagner, Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative. “Had the companies merged, facilities would have had a harder time negotiating contracts with lower rates for families – which, thanks to our movement’s ongoing advocacy, they’re finally beginning to do.”

In our objection to the merger, filed in July 2018 with a coalition of groups working for prison phone justice represented by probono attorneys Davina Sashkin and Cheng-yi Liu, we argued that the FCC should stop the merger.

We argued that Securus’ history of repeatedly flouting commission rules – including deliberately misleading the FCC during a similar review last year, for which it was punished with an unprecedented $1.7 million fine – made it ineligible to purchase one of its competitors. We explained that the company has repeatedly tried to circumvent regulation in order to increase its profits from prison phone calls, and as recently as May 2018 was caught enabling illegal cell phone tracking.

Our filing included a detailed analysis of the concentration of the prison and jail telephone industry. We calculated market share in two different ways; by either measure, Securus and GTL were poised to control between 74% and 83% of the market. Except for ICSolutions – which Securus was seeking to acquire – no other company had above 3% market share.

Below is a historical timeline originally prepared for our report State of Phone Justice: Local jails, state prisons and private phone providers, showing how aggressively Securus and GTL have been gobbling up their competitors:

Graphical timeline showing how Securus and GTL have gobbled up most of their competitors in the prison and jail telephone market from the breakup of AT&T in the early 1980s through early 2019
For more information about this timeline, the companies, their respective sizes, the role of companies like CenturyLink that operate only in partnership with Securus and ICSolutions, or the historical role of AT&T and Verizon, see our report, the footnotes, and appendices to State of Phone Justice: Local jails, state prisons and private phone providers.

Updated April 3, 2019 10am with FCC press release and 1pm with the Department of Justice’s press release.


California's AB 964 would require in-person visits in all California jails

by Bernadette Rabuy, March 30, 2019

comment letter

For the past few years, California policymakers have been at hard work to protect in-person jail visitation from sheriffs and private companies who are eager to replace crucial human contact with impersonal video chats. While legislators were successful in preventing jails who provided in-person visits in January 2017 from later eliminating them, jails that had already banned in-person visits are permitted to continue their video-only policies.

That could change this legislative cycle thanks to Assembly Member Medina’s AB 964. AB 964 would require that all California jails provide in-person visits. Specifically, jails that are currently exempted would need to restore in-person visits by 2025.

The Assembly Public Safety Committee will be voting on AB 964 on April 2. We submitted a comment, encouraging committee members “to recognize and support the positive role families play in rehabilitation” and, more importantly, that “human beings need in person visits.”


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.


The fight to make prison and jail phone calls affordable began in 2000. For those wondering "why is this taking so long?", here are the key dates.

by Peter Wagner and Alexi Jones, December 17, 2018

Journalists and others often ask about how the movement for phone justice began and why this is taking so long. Here are the key dates:

2000:
Martha Wright, a grandmother who was struggling to afford calls to her incarcerated grandson, sues a private prison company over the contracts it has with various phone companies.
2001:
Federal Court grants motions by private prison company and telephone companies to refer the case to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
2002-2011:
For nearly 10 years, the Federal Communications Commission takes no visible action.
2012:
The Federal Communications Commission files a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) regarding the Wright Petition.
2013:
The Federal Communications Commission votes 2-1 to approve new regulations that set interstate rate caps of 21 cents a minute for debit and pre-paid calls and 25 cents a minute for collect calls. The one dissenting vote is from FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who previously represented prison phone giant Securus in private practice.
2014:
Despite legal challenges from prison phone companies, the FCC’s new rate caps go into effect in February.
2015:
In October, the FCC issues additional regulations, lowering the cost for all calls from prisons (out-of-state and in-state) to 11 cents a minute, and lowering the cost of calls from jails at 14 to 22 cents a minute depending on the size of the institution. The FCC also approves comprehensive reform and caps on the cost of “ancillary fees” that can double the cost of a call. Again, Commissioner Pai voted against these regulations. Many of the phone companies, several state prison systems, county jail systems, and sheriff associations file suit challenging the FCC’s order.
2016:
The federal court issues a partial stay of the Federal Communications Commission’s October 2015 regulations, preventing the new rate caps from taking effect. The new regulations on fees, however, go into effect. The lawsuit moves very slowly.
2017:
In January, Donald Trump appoints FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai the Chairman of the FCC. In February, Pai, who had twice voted against regulating the industry, announces that the FCC will stop defending its in-state rate caps in court. However, the FCC does consent to 6 advocacy organizations, including the Prison Policy Initiative, defending that part of the lawsuit as intervenor-defendants. In June, despite this effort, the federal court strikes down the FCC’s 2015 rate caps. The 2013 rate caps, and the 2015 fee caps, remain in place.

For more on the struggle for phone justice, see our campaign page.




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