Appendix 9:
When it comes to bringing down the price of calls in jails, urban counties are leading the way

We offer a national look at the data plus detailed views of California, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio.

As we saw in Michigan, both large and small jails can choose to have low rates for phones calls, but we can also see that, nationally, urban jails are more successful in fighting for better deals for the families of incarcerated people.

In counties that are 99% rural (according to the Census), a 15-minute in-state phone call costs $7.77 on average, but in counties that are 95% urban, that same call costs half as much, at an average rate of $3.67.

Rural (less than 1% is urban population) Urban (95% or greater is urban population)
Number of counties in sample 115 114
Median cost of 15-minute in-state calls $6.54 $3.15
Average cost of 15-minute in-state calls $7.77 $3.67

Some states have set their own caps on phone rates, so in those states there is less variation between county rates in general. These states obscure the pattern somewhat when we compare urban and rural rates on a national level. It’s much easier to see in individual states that have not set rate caps. For example, California, Colorado, Illinois, and Iowa all illustrate the general trend: the more urban the county, the lower the cost to families:

This trend holds even in states like Ohio, where the state has imposed its own price cap on in-state calls to match the FCC’s caps on out-of-state calls (at $3.15). Our data show that the few counties that charge less than the maximum rate are all at least 95% urban, and the lowest rates are found in three of the most urban counties (Lucas, Hamilton, and Franklin):

To be clear, the urban-rural differences in phone rates are not the result of different providers serving different types of counties. We analyzed various companies’ rates in rural versus urban counties separately and determined the provider doesn’t make much of a difference. We conclude, therefore, that the urban-rural rate differences are most likely the result of negotiations made by sheriffs or other jail administrators, who may have different priorities — or simply different capacity for contract negotiations — in rural areas than they do in urban areas.

Methodology: We analyzed our national rate survey against the Census Bureau’s designation of the percentage of each county that is urban or rural. We encourage other researchers and organizers to perform other analyses and share their data back with us.

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