For more than 15 years, the cost of a prison phone call has been as high as $18 for just 15 minutes of talk time. While it has varied over time and state by state, in Georgia, for example, rates can reach 89 cents per minute, with an additional per-call charge as high as $3.95. And that doesn't even include the many extra costs for using the phone system. There are flat fees every time you add money to your prepaid account. There are high connection fees. Often calls are dropped — if you pause in conversation, for example, the connection may cut off — and the user has to pay another fee to call back.
Things are set to change in February with the FCC's August ruling that will cap inmate call prices at 21 cents a minute for debit or prepaid calls, and 25 cents a minute for collect calls — which is still a high price compared with the cost of calls in the outside world.
The ruling comes after over a decade of challenges, including a petition signed by tens of thousands of people. In the ruling, the FCC says it provides "long overdue, steps to provide relief to the millions of Americans who have borne the financial burden of unjust and unreasonable interstate inmate phone rates."
The price tag can't be explained by expensive technology alone. Yes, prison phones may have recording capabilities, monitoring, and tailored alerts — so the prison knows when certain calls are made — as well as blocks to certain numbers, and even, in some cases, biometrics. But up to 60% of the money spent on calls goes toward what are known as "commissions," which are essentially kickbacks from the phone companies to the prison system. In 42 states, when companies bid for the contract to build and run a state's prison phone system, they have to include what cut of the profits from inmates paying for calls will go to the correction department. It's a setup similar to vending machines in public schools: For each soda sold, a certain amount of money goes to the school district.
The prison commissions can be a combination of a percentage of gross revenue, a signing bonus, a monthly fixed amount, yearly fixed amount, often with a minimum guarantee, or in-kind donations like computers. In 2012, those state prison systems collectively received $103.9 million in commissions from the companies.
Instead of picking a company that has the lowest price or the best service, these bids tend to go to companies that offer the highest commissions to the prison. This has resulted in a monopoly, with three companies — Global Tel-Link, Securus, and Century Link — dominating 80% of the market.
Why should you care? Regular contact with families and friends back home is proven to be a major factor in rehabilitation and successful reentry after prison, and it reduces the likelihood of recidivism. Given the disproportionately low income of inmates, this cost is prohibitive.
"I am being held incommunicado from my own family — my only source of inspiration, hope and support other than God," wrote Texas state prisoner Danny Bonds in a letter to blog Between the Bars last year. "It has also caused me and my family to suffer prolonged disappointment, grief, and serious disintegration, destruction and loss of our family integrity and unit." Bonds has been locked up since 1989 but has been able to make only three long-distance phone calls to his family due to the costs; his family just doesn't have the money.
The August ruling was the FCC's first on the prison phone industry; until now the $1.2 billion annual prison phone industry has been unregulated. The ruling improves the system, but not completely.
The FCC has limited the dollar amount companies can give to corrections departments in the form of commissions, but it isn't banning the practice altogether.
Prices can still stay high. Companies can also get a waiver to charge more than the capped amount. The FCC doesn't fully restrict the hidden costs and fees that hike up prices.
The ruling bans companies from charging to connect a call or to use a calling card, two of the most problematic practices, but companies have many other hidden costs and can add new ones at any time.
For instance, companies charge more for calls to cell phones. They tack on a credit card fee every time someone refills an account — which for Securus customers is $9.95 each time. They encourage people to add money to their accounts in small increments.
According to Securus' website, the company's line items on its monthly bill includes a $1.49 bill processing charge, $3.49 billing statement fee, $3.49 federal regulatory recovery fee, $1.00 USF administrative fee ,and a $3.99 wireless administration fee. The companies also charge people to close their accounts and impose time limits for getting reimbursed. Global Tel-Link, for instance, charges $5 to close an account and gives customers 90 days to reclaim their balance.
When I called Global Tel-Link's Customer Service Center to ask about potential fees with accounts, they told me the company charges $8.75 to add money to an account.
Neither Securus nor Global Tel-Link responded to questions from BuzzFeed.
It's the families, not the prisoners, who foot the bill in the vast majority of cases. "This penalizes our family members instead of us … our families have not been sentenced along with us and should have no other burden to bear than us being in here," says an inmate whose wife eventually had to cancel her phone contract because of the cost. "To absorb a significant increase of their budget just to stay in touch should be criminal on the part of the State … Nothing deters them in [fixing the problem] but the loss of profit."
Update: the FCC changes go into effect in February, 90 days after publication in the Federal Register. A former draft stated changes go into effect 90 days after the ruling was made.