How the Prison Phone Industry Further Isolates Prisoners

Source: Kalena Thomhave, American Prospect, October 12, 2017
When inmates are able to speak to friends and family while incarcerated, it not only improves their lives, but also, studies have shown, reduces recidivism after they leave prison. But to fill in budget holes or to make a profit, many state and local governments work with companies that put a high price tag on this basic need for the incarcerated.  A handful of companies monopolize the prison phone industry, and their control of the market allows them to charge exorbitant rates for inmate calls to their homes. States that contract with these providers tend to choose the contractor that provides not the lowest price, but the highest commission rate for the state. As a result, prisoners and their families may pay up to $1 per minute on a call. …


Face-to-Face Family Visits Return to Some Jails
Source: Mindy Fetterman, The Pew Charitable Trusts, February 15, 2017

… Jailhouse visits like this one between family members and inmates are starting to make a comeback, replacing a decadeslong trend of requiring families to use Skype-like video technology in which families dial in from a computer at home, a public library or inside the jail itself to talk to a loved one who is incarcerated. The reason: Video technology companies came under criticism for charging high fees and for providing poor quality video connections. And evidence is growing that in-person visits help cut the likelihood that inmates will return to jail once they get out. Counties in Texas and Mississippi as well as the District of Columbia are reinstating face-to-face visits. A few states, like New Jersey, are considering legislation to allow in-person visits again.

… Although in-person visits remain the most common form of interaction between inmates and family members, the trend toward video visitation has been growing since the late 1990s. More than 500 jails and state prisons in 43 states have some sort of video visitation system, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. About 12 percent of jails have it, according to a study by PPI, which advocates for prisoners and their families. … And as video visitation has increased, face-to-face visitation has declined. The PPI found in a 2015 study that 74 percent of jails dropped in-person visits when they started video visits. Often the private companies that provide video visitation services require governments to drop in-person visits. … More than one in three families go into debt to cover the costs of staying in touch with people who are incarcerated, including paying for video calls, telephone calls and travel expenses for trips to jails and especially prisons, which can be hundreds of miles away, according to a survey of families by the Ella Baker Center, a nonprofit that advocates against mass incarceration. … Those fees have come under criticism for being a “kickback” for governments, too. … The controversy over the cost of video visitation calls is part of a larger debate over the high cost of regular telephone calls for inmates. …

FCC made a case for limiting cost of prison phone calls. Not anymore.
Source: Ann E. Marimow, The Washington Post, February 5, 2017

Federal regulators no longer are pressing to cut the costs of most prison phone calls, backing away from a years-long effort to limit charges imposed by a handful of private companies on inmates and their families. The shift by the Federal Communications Commission comes as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on Monday considers whether commissioners went too far when they capped prices for inmate calls that had reached more than a $1 per minute. To make phone calls from most federal and state prisons, inmates generally must set up accounts with a private company to hold money deposited by family members. The companies typically have a contract with the prisons, which receive a portion of the call revenue. Federal regulators had pushed since 2013 to lower the costs, saying the prices made it too hard for relatives to stay in touch. But a week after President Trump tapped a new leader for the FCC, the commission’s attorneys changed course and told the court that the FCC no longer would defend one of its own key provisions that limited fees for prisoners’ intrastate calls. … But supporters of the FCC’s limits say the phone contracts are being awarded on the basis of companies’ willingness to pay the highest commissions to prison systems — not on the basis of lowest rates or best service. In 2013, phone-service companies paid at least $460 million in commissions to correctional facilities, according to a brief filed by a coalition of advocates for inmates and their families. A number of state prison systems, including in New York’s, Mississippi’s and New Jersey’s, have taken steps to reduce rates and in some cases to limit commissions. …

Video visits lead troubling trend in prison technology
Source: Eric Easter, The Louisiana Weekly, January 30, 2017

… As advocates for the families of the incarcerated have slowly begun to win the battle against prison phone call price gouging, the companies who profited from the high prices have found new ways to provide services to the nation’s prisons. And in nearly every case, those new services have come at a significant cost to inmates and their families. … Of all the new services, video visitation is rapidly becoming the next frontier. Prison administrators, like those at CCA, the nation’s largest private prison operator, suggest that the system aids security and saves money, primarily by cutting down on staff needed to facilitate a sometimes overwhelming numbers of visitors. They claim it also limits the possibility of contraband being passed from visitor to inmate. But there is a financial incentive as well. At an average cost of $1.25 per minute, video calls add another layer of costs to inmates. Many prisons also receive commissions on revenue from those visits, sometimes as much as 60 percent. There is a bizarre twist to the commission structure, however. Prisons are eligible only if those facilities also ban live visits in favor of the calls. It is an incentive apparently hard to pass up. Of the hundreds of prisons that have adopted video visitation, 75 percent have chosen to ban personal visits. The profit from those commissions can be high. While some states, such as Ohio, do not accept commissions, in North Carolina, commissions from phone calls and video visits topped $6.8 million in the last public reporting, nearly $100,000 more than the much larger state of Texas. … Many families of inmates, because they lack resources, are still obliged to spend money to travel to prison facilities –where, because of personal visit bans, they must talk to their loved ones via screen only. And once there, families and advocates complain that the service can be less than efficient, with dropped audio and delayed video streams cited as frequent problems. Yet some say the real cost of a video visit cannot be measured in dollars. Lee Petro, the Washington attorney who represented inmate families before the FCC in the fight against prison phone pricing, said “Every study done on prison visitation shows that even a single visit can have a major impact of limiting recidivism. If your job as a prison is to stop people from coming back, why would you ban one of the most effective ways to put people on a better path, then turn around and use the money to pay for new programs that may or may not work? It defies logic.”

The End of Prison Visitation
Source: Jack Smith IV, Tech.Mic, May 6, 2016

Travis County ended all in-person visitations in May 2013, leaving video visitation as the exclusive method for people on the outside to communicate with the incarcerated. But Travis County is only on the leading edge of a new technological trend that threatens to abolish in-person visitation across the country. Over 600 prisons in 46 states have some sort of video visitation system, and every year, more of those facilities do away with in-person visitation. … A sweeping survey of families by the Ella Baker Center showed that more than 1 in 3 families goes into debt just to cover the costs of keeping in touch with their loved one. Of everyone pouring money into those systems, 87% are women. … If the FCC stops the telecoms from gouging families for phone fees, the next frontier is, well, any other service those companies provide. One of those lucrative new products is prison email, in which families are charged for digital “stamps.” The other is video visitation. The FCC is already looking to regulate other kinds of communication, but it could be months, even years, before it gets around to addressing digital communication. So while the FCC lumbers toward capping phone costs, the prison telecoms can get the same money from innocent families using systems the FCC hasn’t gotten around to regulating yet. … Prisons have their own incentive. Officials across the country, including Brandon Wood of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, argue that visitation is a privilege and not a right — and that visitations are a security risk. But the true incentive is keeping costs low. Video visitation requires fewer full-time prison staff members, so if the private contractors are willing to run the visitation system themselves, it’s a pretty sweet deal for counties. Especially when those contractors are paying their way in. …

How Prison Phone Calls Became A Tax On The Poor
Source: Eric Markowitz, International Business Times, March 30, 2016

Communication, however, is enormously expensive for Mary Jo, a 52-year-old grandmother who lives on $733 monthly disability checks. The video visitations cost $10 per 30-minute visit, or $19.99 per month. Phone calls, meanwhile, cost $3.98 for every 15 minutes, plus a $9.95 fee to load money into an account.  Part of the reason the calls are so expensive is because a private company, Securus Technologies, has an exclusive contract to operate the phone and video visitation system in the jail. But an even larger reason the phone calls are so expensive is because the local sheriff’s office takes a large cut of the money, called a “commission.” Last year, Marion County received $549,804.52 in commissions from Securus, according to contracts and financial documents obtained by International Business Times through a records request. Studies have consistently shown that communication with family members lowers the rates of inmate recidivism. But calls are often too expensive for lower-income people, which make up the vast majority of those who are incarcerated. … While new rules that would lower the cap on call rates were scheduled to become effective March 17, regulators have encountered pushback. Late last year, Securus and Global Tel*Link, another prison telecommunications provider, filed a lawsuit against the FCC to block the regulation. … Commissions, however, are part of the reason rates are so high. The FCC does not have plans to ban the practice. However, in court filings the regulatory body notes that it “strongly discourages” their use. Regardless of where the money goes, family members just want a more affordable way to keep in touch.

Prison phone company says rate caps will make inmates angry and dangerous
Source: Jon Brodkin, Arstechnica, March 18, 2016

Prison phone companies are trying to stop a new Federal Communications Commission effort to impose rate caps on intrastate calls, with one executive claiming that immediate enforcement of new caps will cause “jail unrest.” The phone companies and the FCC have different interpretations of a stay order issued on March 7. Prison phone companies say the court order should mostly preserve the status quo, while the FCC argues that the order lets it apply its existing caps on interstate call rates to intrastate calls. Securus Technologies CEO Richard Smith filed an affidavit in federal appeals court yesterday, arguing that the FCC has misinterpreted the court order and that imposing the rate caps on intrastate calls will cause problems in prisons and jails. Under a heading titled “Jail Unrest,” Smith’s affidavit stated:

This chaos and confusion about what is the correct intrastate calling rate—and the only answer is that there is no federally mandated intrastate calling rate after the Court’s March 7 Order which stayed all new rates—will carry over into correctional facilities themselves. Inmates will be angry if they believe that Securus is charging the wrong rates. There could be damage to Securus phones and equipment, as well as a threat to overall security and corrections personnel including inmates within the facilities. Having been in this industry for eight years, I have experience with jail unrest and I know that issues with the phones can trigger it.

Calling a prison inmate can cost $54 a pop. The FCC thinks that’s way too high.
Source: Brian Fung, Washington Post, October 22, 2015

Federal regulators took sweeping new steps Thursday to lower the cost of calling jail and prison inmates, completing a years-long effort to correct what some top officials have called an “egregious case of market failure” in inmate phone rates. The rules establish a ceiling for phone calls to jails and prisons that’s based on the number of inmates housed by those institutions. For state and federal prisons, rates will be capped at 11 cents per minute. Phone companies serving the nation’s smallest jails — those with fewer than 350 inmates — will not be allowed to charge more than 22 cents per minute. …

FCC takes next big steps in reducing inmate calling rates
Source: Federal Communications Commission, October 22, 2015

…With the cost of a call sometimes ballooning to $14 per minute once inside prison walls, the FCC for the first time capped rates for local and in-state long-distance inmate calling, and cut its existing cap on interstate long-distance calls by up to 50 percent. At the same time, the FCC closed loopholes by barring most add-on fees imposed by inmate calling service (ICS) providers, and set strict limits on the few fees that remain. Extra fees and charges can increase the cost of families staying in touch by phone with loved ones who are incarcerated by as much as 40%….New caps reduce the average rates for the vast majority of inmate calls substantially, from $2.96 to no more than $1.65 for a 15-minute intrastate call for most calls, and from $3.15 to no more than $1.65 for most 15-minute interstate calls. … Eliminates unnecessary fees by capping or banning burdensome ancillary service charges, which can add nearly 40% to the cost of a single call …

Prison phone companies charging “endless” fees to families of inmates
Source: Jon Brodkin, Arstechnica, October 1, 2015

The Federal Communications Commission is poised to cap the rates charged for phone calls made to and from prisons, saying inmate calling services are overcharging prisoners, their families, and attorneys. “Just how high are these rates? A pro bono attorney paid $14 a minute to speak to an incarcerated client,” FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said in a speech last week. “Families write explaining how they are making extraordinary sacrifices by paying $400-$500 a month to hear their loved one’s voice. The endless array of new and increasing fees can add nearly 40 percent to costs—fees as high as $9.50 to open a new account, $4.75 to add money to an account, and $2.99 a month for the account maintenance fee. These rates and fees would be difficult for any family to bear, but if you were already struggling to stay afloat, you are now foregoing basic necessities like food and medicine just to make a phone call. No family should be forced to make this choice.” … Yesterday, Clyburn teamed up with Chairman Tom Wheeler to propose new rate caps on all inmate calls including the intrastate calls that happen within a state, which account for 85 percent of calls from correctional facilities. The FCC is scheduled to vote on the item on October 22.

In Prisons, Sky-High Phone Rates and Money Transfer Fees
Source: Stephanie Clifford and Jessica Silver-Greenberg, New York Times, June 27, 2014

Inside the razor wire on Eagle Crest Way, in rural Clallam Bay, Wash., telephone calls start at $3.15. Emails out, beyond the security fence, run 33 cents. Money transfers in, to what pass for bank accounts, cost $4.95. Within that perimeter lies the Clallam Bay Corrections Center, a state prison — and an attractive business opportunity. One private company, JPay, has a grip on Internet and financial services. Another, Global Tel-Link, controls the phones. These companies are part of a new breed of businesses flourishing inside American jails and prisons. Many of these players are being bankrolled by one of the most powerful forces in American finance: private equity. Private investment firms have invested many billions of dollars in the prison industry, betting — correctly — that it is a growth business. Wall Street previously championed companies like Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest private corrections company. But unlike companies that have thrived by running prisons, the likes of Global Tel-Link and JPay are becoming de facto banks, phone companies and Internet service providers for inmates and their families across the nation….

….But private enterprises are not the only ones profiting. Eager to reduce costs and bolster dwindling budgets, states, counties and cities are seeking a substantial cut in return for letting the businesses into prisons, a review of dozens of contracts by The New York Times found. In Baldwin County, Ala., for instance, the sheriff’s department collects 84 percent of the gross revenue from calls at the county jail. A Texas company has guaranteed the county at least $55 a month per inmate, according to a copy of the contract. Similar stories are playing out in places like the Emanuel Women’s Facility in Swainsboro, Ga.; MacDougall Correctional Institution in Ridgefield, S.C.; and the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, The Times found. Some corrections departments use the commissions to provide services, said Steve Gehrke, a spokesman for the Washington State Department of Corrections. In Washington State, all commissions go toward compensating victims and improving services like libraries….