A bare-bones guide to jump-starting your campaign to lower the cost of calls from your local jail

We’ve got tools and insights to help you target and time your efforts for the biggest impact.

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:

  • Pick a jail to focus your efforts
  • Learn what that facility currently charges for calls;
  • Identify ways the facility can reduce prices; and
  • Time your campaign for the greatest chance of success.

Find your target(s)

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.

Gather information

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:

  1. The facility’s current phone contract: This will tell you its current phone rates.
  2. Any amendments to that contract: This will tell you whether the original contract’s terms are still in place or if things — including the rate for calls or commissions — have changed.
  3. Recent commission reports: This will tell you whether the jail is getting kickbacks from the phone company and how big those kickbacks are. To get these reports we suggest asking for “the commission reports for the three most recent months available, or if these are not available, for the three most recent time periods that are available.”

When you get the documents from your county, consider sending them to us so we can include them in our Contracts Library.

Set your strategy

Once you have the documents you need, there are two things you want to look at:

  1. The size of the commission: This tells you how much money the county is making on the calls and how much cheaper the calls could instantly be without those commissions. (Obviously, the county could negotiate a better deal with the company, but waiving commissions can instantly lower the cost and is something the company can’t object to.)
  2. The expiration date of the contract: This date can help you time your efforts. While with enough political will, a contract can be renegotiated at any time, shortly before the expiration of a contract is the most likely time it will happen.

    However, the expiration date is often less clear than you would think. This is because contracts are often extended, sometimes automatically, sometimes by separate agreements, and sometimes facilities use an old contract even after it has expired. So, you may need to do some digging to understand exactly when a contract will actually expire.

    It is a safe bet that the facility won’t start planning for the renewal or renegotiation of a contract until about a year before it is set to expire, so that’s a good time to begin your campaign. By starting your efforts before that, you can put pressure on local leaders as they begin to think about this renewal and influence what they want in the new contract. This is also an ideal time to raise the expectation with them that the contract will be put out to public bid and encourage them to prioritize lower rates.

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.

Other resources

We’ve got additional resources that may help you decide your next steps:

  • Our phones page includes our latest reports, data on this industry, and examples of our past advocacy in this realm. It also discusses common bad practices and highlights media coverage in other jurisdictions.
  • Our best practices guides for governments soliciting contracts (what these officials will call “drafting requests for proposals” or “drafting an RFP”) provide concrete steps they can take to address some of the most egregious practices of the jail and prison communication industry. We wrote guides for three services:
  • San Francisco put together a guide on how and why they made the change to stop charging for phone calls from jails. Their guide includes specific recommendations for local leaders in other areas looking to replicate its success.

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.

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