Despite progress in recent years, calls from prisons and jails are still too high. At a time when, for most people, the cost of making a call is next to nothing, incarcerated people and their families are still forced to pay unreasonably high rates.
The progress made to lower phone rates has been won by people on the ground doing the hard work to drive change. We’ve put together this guide to help organizers and activists build campaigns to pressure policymakers in their communities to lower the cost of calls home from jails — or, better yet, stop charging incarcerated people and their families for calls altogether. In it, we explain how to:
Because phone rates in jails are generally higher than in prisons, local campaigns can often have the biggest impact. Jails also usually get less focus than prisons, so putting a spotlight on high phone rates at these facilities is more likely to spur local officials into action and attract the attention of local journalists.
The place you can make the biggest difference is obviously in your own county. However, it’s worth including neighboring counties in your effort because you might hit roadblocks in your county, you probably know people who live in those areas that you can collaborate with, and it’s probably the same media market. Widening your focus is likely a low lift that can make a big impact.
Once you have a few facilities in mind, knowing what they currently charge for calls can help you prioritize your work. In our recent State of Phone Justice 2022 report, we compiled phone rates for more than 3,000 jails and all 50 departments of corrections. Keep in mind the current average rate for a call from jails is 19-21¢ per minute, and from state-run prisons is 8¢ per minute. Comparing a facility’s current rates to these averages can provide helpful clues about whether it has already taken action to lower rates or whether they’ve been resistant to change.
Knowing what a jail charges for calls is important, but to effectively advocate, you need to understand what drives those costs. For this, you’ll almost certainly need to get the contract between the facility and the phone company and its recent commission reports.
The good news is that we may have already done the hard work for you. Our Correctional Contracts Library has hundreds of contracts between state and local governments and phone providers, as well as many commission reports.
If we don’t already have the documents you need, use our public records requests guide to ask the facility for them; we even provide sample language to get you started. (This guide also has some ideas for finding the documents you need without filing a formal records request). When filing a records request, we suggest asking for these three things:
When you get the documents from your county, consider sending them to us so we can include them in our Contracts Library.
Once you have the documents you need, there are two things you want to look at:
Once you know your targets, have identified the size of any commissions the state or county is making from calls, and the expiration date of the phone contract, you will need to make some strategic choices about what to aim for and how to get it. A lot of the specifics - including what the calls should cost, how other products, such as video calling, are treated, and what allies to bring into your effort — will be strategy choices you’ll need to make based on your analysis of what is possible in your state or county.
We’ve got additional resources that may help you decide your next steps:
Over the last decade, the movement to reduce phone rates for incarcerated people and their families has come a long way, but a lot of work remains. Effective, strategic, and well-informed local campaigns are a vital way we’ll keep making progress.