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How Much Are Calls From Prison?

Making phone calls is an essential way for incarcerated individuals to stay connected with their loved ones and access critical services while in prison. However, the high costs of prison phone calls have made it difficult for many inmates and families to stay in touch. This article will examine the factors behind the elevated pricing of prison phone services and provide suggestions for reform.

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Background on the Prison Phone Industry

The prison telecommunications industry generates over $1.4 billion in annual revenue in the United States. This lucrative market is dominated by a handful of private companies that have secured exclusive contracts with correctional facilities across the country.

History of Prison Phone Contracts

In the 1990s, prisons began outsourcing their payphone systems to private vendors in exchange for lucrative commission fees. This shifted costs from the prisons to the incarcerated people and their families. The companies that control prison phone contracts frequently charge egregious connection fees, per-minute rates, and add-on costs.

Key Players in the Market

Today, a few major companies control the market share of prison telecom services. These include Securus Technologies, Global Tel Link (GTL), and ViaPath Technologies, which collectively serve over 2 million incarcerated individuals nationwide. These companies are consistently criticized for their predatory billing practices and poor service quality.

Lack of Regulation and Oversight

The prison phone industry has evaded regulation due to a legal exemption within the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Attempts to regulate rates have been challenged in court. Additionally, many state public utility commissions lack jurisdiction over prison phone contracts. This lack of oversight allows companies to charge exploitative fees with no repercussions.

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The High Price of Prison Phone Calls

The monopolization of the prison telecom industry has led to shockingly high calling rates that strained the budgets of incarcerated people and their families.

Excessive Connection Fees

Most prison phone contracts require an initial connection fee just to set up an account and process payment. This fee can be as high as $9.99.

Per-Minute Rates

After paying the connection fee, callers are charged per minute on top of that. Per-minute rates can range anywhere from $0.20 to over $0.90 per minute.

Inflated Costs for Long Distance

Prison phone companies typically impose an additional long-distance rate, even when calls are local. In some cases, any call exceeding 50 miles is considered “long distance” and subject to higher per-minute fees.

Extra Fees for Calling Cell Phones

Calling a cell phone from prison carries an additional fee ranging from $0.50 to $1.50 per call. Since over 50% of US households rely exclusively on cell phones, these fees severely restrict access.

Excessive Add-On Costs

Other common fees include account deposit requirements, maintenance and validation fees, and charges for automated payment or paper billing. These numerous add-ons result in substantially higher costs.

The Human Impact of Expensive Prison Phone Calls

The inflated costs imposed by prison telecom companies have made it extremely difficult for incarcerated individuals to afford basic communication with their families. This has resulted in wide-reaching consequences.

Financial Hardship for Families

To pay for expensive prison calls, families are often forced to choose between communicating with incarcerated relatives and affording basic necessities. Children in low-income households may bear the brunt of these costs.

Decline in Family Connections

The high price tag on prison phone calls frequently causes a decline in communication, weakening family bonds. Research shows that regular family contact reduces recidivism rates and eases reentry.

Poor Access to Legal Counsel

Making phone calls is essential for incarcerated persons to consult with their attorneys. Yet the exorbitant pricing obstructs meaningful access to legal counsel, which is constitutionally protected.

Unethical Kickbacks for Prisons

Prison phone contracts provide kickback commissions to correctional facilities, incentivizing prisons to approve monopolist vendors with the highest rates. This prioritizes profits over the welfare of incarcerated people.

State Reforms and Regulatory Changes

In response to advocacy efforts, some states have implemented reforms and rate caps to make prison calling more affordable. However, systemic change at the federal level remains limited.

State Reforms to Lower Calling Rates

Several state governments have renegotiated prison phone contracts to reduce rates. In New York, per-minute charges dropped from 49 cents to 7 cents after implementing reforms. In Connecticut, a 2018 law capped rates at 7 cents per minute.

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Partial Reforms by the FCC

In 2013, the FCC imposed a cap on interstate long-distance rates. In 2015, they extended rate caps to in-state calls. While these were steps forward, they only affect a fraction of total prison calling.

Legal Challenges from Telecom Companies

In response to the FCC’s rate caps, major prison telecom companies successfully challenged these regulations in federal courts. This limited the implementation of the FCC reforms.

The Need for Comprehensive Legislation

Without legislation at the federal level authorizing regulators to set cost controls, meaningful change remains difficult. Several Congressional bills have been introduced but not yet enacted.

Suggestions for Improving Affordability

There are several recommendations that policymakers and prison authorities can adopt to make prison calling more equitable for incarcerated individuals and their loved ones.

Federal Legislation with Strict Rate Caps

Advocates argue that Congressional legislation is necessary to empower regulators to set and enforce strict rate caps across state lines. Proposed bills aim to cap rates between 5 to 7 cents per minute.

Ban Commissions and Kickbacks

Banning all commissions and kickback incentives from prison telecom contracts could reduce the motivation to inflate costs solely for profit gains. Prisons should select vendors based on lowest rates.

Promote Competition Among Providers

Introducing more competition among prison phone providers could improve service quality and bring down costs. Non-profit entities or state agencies could provide lower cost alternatives.

Subsidize Calling Costs for Families

Government funding initiatives could subsidize the costs of prison calling for qualified low-income families. This could alleviate financial burdens that restrict communication.

Increase Access to Video Calling

Expanding access to lower cost video calling, email, and messaging services could provide more affordable alternatives to traditional phone calls.

Case Studies of Notorious Crimes Committed From Prison

Despite prisons’ tight control over inmate communications, some incarcerated people have still managed to continue directing criminal activity using contraband cell phones or manipulated phone systems. Here are a few notorious cases:

Charles Manson’s Attempted Hit from Prison

In the 1980s, the notorious cult leader Charles Manson was convicted of ordering murders outside of prison. Using smuggled phones, Manson called and wrote to an affiliate ordering a hit on the star witness from his trial.

“Hit __ immediately,” Manson wrote in an intercepted letter containing detailed instructions. His plan was stopped by authorities who caught wind of the scheme.

Hells Angels Drug Trafficking Ring

An investigation in 2011 uncovered a massive meth distribution network being run from California prisons using contraband cell phones. The leader of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang continued controlling drug deals, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars changing hands.

“It’s amazing how much power the Hells Angels wield from prison,” stated an FBI agent involved in busting the ring. “Even behind bars, they direct criminal activities on the outside.”

Anthony Elonis’ Facebook Murder Threats

In 2010, Anthony Elonis was jailed for threatening violence on Facebook. However, while imprisoned on those charges, Elonis continued to post graphic threats on Facebook directed at law enforcement, former coworkers, and even a kindergarten class. He used an illegal cell phone to access the account from behind bars.

“That’s one cute little elementary school. It’d be a shame if anything happened to it,” wrote Elonis in one post, along with violent images. The concerning messages resulted in an additional conviction.

This alarming misuse of prison communication systems demonstrates the need to balance security precautions with efforts to facilitate healthy contact between inmates and their loved ones.

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Key Questions About the Cost of Prison Phone Calls

How much does a prison phone call cost?

On average, prisons charge $0.89 per minute for phone calls, along with additional fees. A 15-minute call can cost over $10 on top of steep connection fees and deposits.

Why are prison phone calls so expensive?

Prison telecom companies operate as monopolies and charge inflated rates to gain huge profit margins. Prisons receive kickback commissions for approving contracts with companies that have the highest rates.

Who sets the rates and fees for prison phone calls?

Private telecom companies negotiate exclusive contracts with correctional facilities. These vendors have no incentive to provide fair rates, so exploitative pricing persists. Meaningful oversight and regulation has been limited.

What are some solutions to lower the cost of prison calls?

Advocates argue that federal legislation is needed to enforce strict rate caps across state lines. Other options include banning kickbacks in contracts, increasing competition among vendors, subsidizing costs for families, and expanding access to free video calls.

How do expensive prison phone calls impact families?

High costs force families to choose between communicating with incarcerated loved ones and affording basic needs. This weakens family connections and affects outcomes like recidivism. Reforms are needed to prevent this burden.


In summary, the inflated costs of prison phone calls continue to limit meaningful communication between inmates and their outside support networks. While reform efforts have reduced rates in some states, comprehensive legislation remains necessary to regulate costs at a national level.

Lowering prison phone rates would ease financial burdens on disadvantaged families, while supporting better outcomes for incarcerated individuals and the communities they will return to. Moving forward, policymakers should prioritize affordable communications as a matter of social justice.

Prison Inside Team

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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