COVID Froze Prison Visits, Spotlighting High Cost of Phone Calls
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Judi Jennings regularly led arts and crafts events in the visitors lobby at the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections in Kentucky.
It wasn’t until in-person visits were suspended last year that Jennings realized how much it costs for people in jail to talk to those outside: around $5 for a 15-minute call to some local landlines, $9.99 for a 15-minute call to a cellphone.
“It became obvious that it was really a hardship on the families,” she said.
And when the city’s proposed 2021-22 budget came out, Jennings said she was shocked to see the corrections department stood to gain phone call revenue of more than $700,000. She shared her concerns with Metro Council Member Bill Hollander, a Democrat. He started a discussion with corrections officials that led to an amended budget that will cut off the revenue by the end of this year and source the money differently.
Hollander credited Jennings for bringing this issue to him. “I wish I could say differently, but it’s not something I would have focused on in terms of the entire budget,” he said in an interview.
Even the corrections department was on board: “If that means taking a little bit of a hit on losing a revenue stream, that’s a hit worth taking,” said Eric Troutman, the department chief of staff. He said prison officials want to cut the call rates “as low as possible.”
Calls can come at a steep cost. Nationally, the average cost of a 15-minute call from jail was $5.74 in 2018, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based research organization that favors alternatives to incarceration. Prisons and jails contract with companies to buy phone equipment and set call rates. Calls to and from a facility often come with fees.
The prison telecommunication industry generates an estimated $1.4 billion in annual revenue, with a few companies that dominate the market. In addition, many states and localities rake in millions each year from commissions built into contracts with the industry.
Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission, which can set rates for calls from prisons and jails across state lines and internationally, lowered the cost of calls by a third, to around 14 cents per minute. But states and municipalities set the costs of in-state calls in state prisons and local jails, where most incarcerated people are.
In Louisville and other places, advocates are speaking up—and those costs are dropping. In June, Connecticut became the first state to make calls free from its prisons. In California, San Francisco and San Diego counties now offer free calls. And proposals to offer calls for free or at reduced prices are being debated in Maine, New York and other states.
Activists and officials involved in the shift credit the pandemic and widespread racial justice protests in 2020. “There was also all this stuff from the pandemic and the civil unrest, which brought to light how inequitable things really are,” Troutman said. “We saw that this burden is placed a lot on families who don't have a lot to begin with.”
“You start to realize there really is momentum, and this isn't going away,” said Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, a New York City-based organization that advocates nationally against prison industries.
But the opposition to free phone calls is fierce. In Massachusetts, for example, county sheriffs cut the costs of calls from jails to try to get ahead of legislation that would make calls free and thereby eliminate commissions.
“This is not a profit center for the sheriffs’ departments,” said Democratic Sheriff Steven Tompkins of Suffolk County, Massachusetts, who is president of the state’s sheriffs association. “The money we are going to lose out on now needs to be replaced so that we can offer continuous, quality programming.”
Someone Has to Pay
For five years, Leslie Credle spent her days in federal prison and her money on calls to her children.
“You have to parent from behind the wall when you’re incarcerated,” Credle, 54, said in a recent interview. “It doesn't really matter who takes care of your children, no one is going to love your kids like you do.”
The once or twice weekly calls from the federal prison cost her and her family around $200 each month, she said.
After being released in 2018, Credle jumped into advocacy work in her home state of Massachusetts, joining Families for Justice as Healing, a group that aims to end the incarceration of women and girls. The organization has been supporting legislation that would make calls free, Credle said.
But the members of the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association, which consists of the 14 county sheriffs in the state, are wary of the potential loss of revenue they use for programs and other jail services.
To show state legislators they are willing to help incarcerated people communicate, sheriffs will offer 10 minutes of free phone time per week starting this month. They also decided to stop connection fees and cap the per-minute call rate at 14 cents.
“I’m not against free inmate phone calls,” said Hampden County Sheriff Nicholas Cocchi, a Democrat and the association’s vice president. “The bills with wide open free phone calls wouldn't have allowed us to fund so many inmate services and programs that we provide.”
Cocchi said every penny of revenue—about $700,000 a year before the pandemic—goes to incarcerated people in some form or another, from vocational services to a bus line available to people being discharged.
Hampden County already charges 12 cents per minute, the lowest in the state, Cocchi said. Tompkins said Suffolk County will drop its rates from 18 to 14 cents a minute.
The sponsor of the free call legislation, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Cindy Creem, said in a statement to Stateline that she sees the sheriffs’ announcement as a beginning and not an end to the issue.
“I appreciate their recognition of how important it is for persons behind bars, whether sentenced or awaiting trial, to stay connected to their families, and believe that my legislation to provide phone calls at no cost to prisoners and their families is the appropriate next step,” Creem said.
Creem’s legislation is in the Massachusetts legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, which plans to give it a hearing, according to a Senate aide. A similar bill moved favorably out of the committee last year but didn’t advance further.
The debate over who should pay for calls is ongoing in Maine, where state Rep. MaryAnne Kinney this session introduced a bill that would require prisons and jails to not accept commissions on phone or video calls, to cap call rates at 11 cents per minute and to allow incarcerated individuals two free 15-minute calls per week.
The bill has been carried over to next year’s session despite opposition from the Department of Corrections and the state sheriffs association.
Kinney, a Republican, said she introduced the legislation at the request of a Maine mother whose son is incarcerated.
“Hopefully we can put balance into not costing the family so much more than it already has cost them,” Kinney said. “[And] balance it with not costing the taxpayers that don't have incarcerated family members.”
‘A Banner Year’
Tylek, of advocacy group Worth Rises, doesn’t think incarcerated people and their families should bear any communication costs.
“If you want to incarcerate people you need to pay for their incarceration,” Tylek said.
“When I talk to legislators, I ask, ‘What's the purpose of prisons and jails?’ Most will talk about rehabilitation,” she said. “If the core function of prison and jails is rehabilitation, why are you not funding the programs? Why would that be a responsibility of families on the outside?”
A 2015 report from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, an Oakland, California-based organization that advocates for civil rights, found 1 in 3 families went into debt to pay for phone calls and visits.
The Connecticut law is a victory for Worth Rises, which has for years been working on cutting call costs and bringing attention to commissions nationally, Tylek said.
Connecticut had been making a 68% commission on in-state calls, generating about $7 million a year in revenue. Starting in October 2022, the law will give people who are incarcerated free phone and video calls. It bars the state from getting commissions.
The Department of Corrections will have to pay for the communication services, which are expected to cost up to $4.5 million per year. The legislature’s Appropriations Committee included funding to pay for the service and address the revenue gap.
The new law passed the Democratic-controlled legislature with minimal Republican support. Republican state Rep. Rosa Rebimbas proposed an amendment that would have limited rates to the equivalent of the cost to the facility.
“Asking the taxpayers, and by extension the victims and the victims’ families, to subsidize this cost is wrong,” Rebimbas said in a statement after her amendment was voted down.
Connecticut will keep its contract with Securus Technologies, which issued a news release praising the state’s new “fully taxpayer funded model.”
In the same release, Securus said it started to offer no-commission and fully taxpayer-funded options in all contracts last year. The company now has 100 no-commission contracts, according to spokesperson Jade Trombetta. (In its 2020 filing with the Federal Communications Commission, the company reported 840 contracts in total; the others include commissions.)
Securus also has lowered the average cost of calls to less than 14 cents a minute, Trombetta said, part of a “multi-year transformation effort to better serve justice-involved families and make our products more affordable and accessible.”
In March, the company touted the 40 million free phone calls it offered in the past year in response to COVID-19. Another major vendor, GTL, said it worked with more than 400 facilities to provide more than 22 million free calls from March to May 2020. GTL did not respond to requests for comment.
Wanda Bertram, spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative, argued the companies’ free calls were “an asset for them in terms of publicity.”
“I think that 2020 was a banner year for these companies,” she said. “I actually think that in the wake of the pandemic, we are going to see these companies have more strength.”
Bertram’s assessment is supported by a Worth Rises analysis of financial statements from Securus’ parent company, Aventiv Technologies, that showed Securus' revenue grew 10% in 2020 compared with 2% in 2019.
“I don’t mean to dilute the victory. Our movement has been getting a real win for families,” Bertram said. “They are going to keep working to squeeze money from families.”
On a recent day in San Diego, Curtis Howard felt that squeeze. That afternoon he spent $200 to replenish the account that his brother—who is serving a life sentence in a California prison unit for people with mental illnesses—uses to call him.
“It’s always important to keep up with him and have access to him as much as possible,” Howard said.
Howard is the lead organizer with the San Diego chapter of All of Us or None, a national organization that advocates for formerly and currently incarcerated people.
On July 1, San Diego County officials began offering free phone and video calls at its jails. Calls are limited to 15 minutes each, but there’s no cap on the number of calls a person can make.
Howard said he’s grateful for the change and would like to see it extend to the state. For now, he’ll keep in touch, minute by minute.