For many years prisoners and their families have bemoaned the exorbitant rates charged by companies that provide telephone services to the incarcerated. Prisoners and their families, two groups chronically economically disadvantaged, have been abused and taken advantage of time and time again when merely trying to stay in contact. This is plainly unacceptable from a prisoners’ rights standpoint and a social morality standpoint, too. But it gets worse. As we delve into the murky waters of prison phone contracts, those who do not yet understand how insidious and extortionate these contracts truly are, will come to demand for change, not for their own sakes or for society’s, but based upon a moral conviction and the desire to help keep families together, a term of incarceration notwithstanding.
The problem with prison phone contracts ironically enough doesn’t hinge on the various departments of corrections or the Federal Bureau of Prisons. It isn’t even promulgated by prison phone providers either. The issue, instead, has to do with the awarding of prison phone contracts.
Prison phone contracts are awarded based on a profit-share model. Companies such as Global Tel Link agree to charge prisoners and their families high phone rates and to share profits with either the local jail or prison or the central administration of the prison system. As such, the incentive to lower phone rates is actually reduced. Instead, both corrections’ departments and prison phone providers strive to tack on as many fees and increased prison phone rates as much as possible to increase profits, as has been reported frequently in Prison Legal News and at the Prison Law Blog. Often, these contracts are awarded to the prison phone company which offers the largest kick-back rate. In fact, prison phone companies are known to also give premiums away to encourage contracts. Local jails have been known to receive free booking computer systems. Sheriffs have been known to receive campaign donations. And police departments have received free police cruisers.
The reason this is now in the news is due to the Wright petition, named after Martha Wright, whose grandson was incarcerated in a private prison in Arizona. Ms. Wright — backed by numerous supporters such as Prison Legal News, CURE, D.C. Prisoners’ Project, the Prison Policy Initiative, the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, Prisoner Assistant, and others — filed suit over the exorbitant rates she was forced to pay. While her son would only call twice a week for 15 minutes each call, she was forced to pay around $1,000 a year in phone bills incurred due to these calls. Others have reported phone call rates of $12.75 to $15 per 15-minute phone call from prison.
Ms. Wright eventually won in her suit, and thereafter, the FCC stepped in to protect prisoners and their families from these extortionate prison phone practices. As of February 11, 2014, a cap was imposed of 25 cents per minute on interstate collect calls and 21 cents per minute for interstate debit or prepaid calls. Unfortunately, this ruling did not impact in-state phone call rates, which account for more than 80 percent of prison phone calls. Appeals from the case remain pending.
But the issue doesn’t stop here. While the FCC agreed that the non-call fees should also be regulated, a federal court shot the idea down. As such, prison phone companies such as Global Tel Link are still allowed to charge prisoners’ families exorbitant rates to create accounts, close accounts, and more. For example, Global Tel Link charges prisoners’ families a $9.50 fee to deposit $50 on a phone account. Likewise, if a prisoner is released from custody — or if the prisoners’ family simply wants to close the phone account — Global Tel Link charges a $5 fee to refund any monies still on the pre-paid telephone account. Considering that Global Tel Link has a 57 percent market share of the state prison telephone market, this is a very big issue.
In defense of such extortionate practices, American Securities — the private equity fund that owns Global Tel Link — has argued that they must charge these exorbitant rates due to external, yet required services provided to prison systems, services such as investigative functionality and other security measures. It is these extra, costly services they claim make it impractical to compare regular telephone rates to those of prison phone rates. What Global Tel Link is not saying when making such assertions concerns their New York state prison contracts, which span the entire New York state prison system. In the state of New York, Global Tel Link is prohibited from providing kick-backs or commissions to correctional facilities as a result of prison phone contracts or revenues. As such, their rate per minute is only 4.8 cents, a far cry from the $12.75 they charge prisoners’ families in Alameda County, California for a 15-minute telephone call.
While it is sad to report, the prison phone industry is big business, for prison phone companies and departments of corrections alike. According to Prison Legal News, “[T]otal prison phone commissions received by state DOCs nationwide were $140,014,346.39 in 2009, $137,397,425.41 in 2010, $130,697,906.12 in 2011, and $128,296,030.61 in 2012.” Millions, many millions of dollars are being made off of the backs of those unfortunate enough to have a loved one in an American prison. And this is only possible due to the severe communication restrictions imposed upon those in prison. The system effectively creates the need for itself, then pays itself and provides kickbacks to government officials and agencies in an effort to obtain and retain the contracts. What a sad world we live in when prisoners’ families are the ones being abused, all the while the prison phone industry is laughing all the way to the bank while prisoners’ families are standing in line at Western Union trying to ensure that their loved ones can afford soap and toothpaste.