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How Much Are Collect Calls From Prison?

Making phone calls from prison can be expensive, especially when having to make collect calls. The high costs of collect calls from correctional facilities have been a longstanding issue, often making it difficult for inmates to keep in touch with loved ones. This article will provide a comprehensive overview of the costs associated with making collect calls from prison and discuss potential solutions to make calling more affordable.

Background on Inmate Calling Services

Inmates in jails and prisons across the United States rely on inmate calling services (ICS) to communicate with family and friends. ICS providers contract with correctional facilities to provide phone and video call services.

When making calls through these providers, inmates must call collect or set up prepaid accounts funded by friends and family. Collect calling is the most common method, with the receiving party accepting the charges for the call.

ICS providers establish exclusive contracts with correctional facilities. This means inmates have no choice over their provider and must pay the rates set by that company. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimated there were 1.22 million inmates in state and federal prisons in 2020. This large captive audience, combined with exclusive contracts, creates enormous profits for ICS companies.

The High Cost of Collect Calls from Prison

The rates and fees charged by ICS providers have long been criticized by inmates, their families, and advocates as unreasonably high. These high costs are driven by:

  • Commission fees – ICS providers pay commissions to correctional facilities and states on their revenue from inmate calls. These commissions account for a large portion of the rates and fees charged to inmates and their families.
  • Lack of competition – With exclusive contracts and captive customers, ICS providers face little pressure to lower rates.
  • Billing increments – Calls are billed in 15-minute increments, with rounding up, so a 2-minute call could cost the same as a 15-minute call.
  • Connection fees – Fees are charged each time an inmate places a call, ranging from $1-$5 each, regardless of call length.
  • Account deposit fees – Fees may be charged to fund prepaid accounts.
  • Service fees – Added fees for options like voicemail, texting, and video calls.

To illustrate just how expensive these calls can be, here are some average rates and fees:

  • Interstate collect call – $14 for a 15-minute call
  • Intrastate collect call – $3-$9 for a 15-minute call
  • Connection fee per call – $3-$5
  • Prepaid account funding fee – $7
  • Account balances may expire after a certain time period if not used

At these rates, a 30-minute collect call twice a week could easily cost over $100 a month. For inmates and families struggling financially, such high costs take a significant toll and make regular communication difficult.

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Case Study: Examination of Collect Call Rates from Specific Prisons

To provide a closer look at the varying collect call rates across correctional facilities, this section will spotlight rates from state prisons in Texas, Florida, and Minnesota:

Texas Department of Criminal Justice

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has an exclusive contract with ICS provider Securus Technologies to provide inmate calling services.

Here are the TDCJ rates and fees for collect calls:

  • $0.89 per minute for debit/prepaid interstate calls
  • $0.69 per minute for debit/prepaid intrastate calls
  • $1.65 per minute for collect interstate calls
  • $1.25 per minute for collect intrastate calls
  • $4.00 connection fee per call

With these rates, a 15-minute collect interstate call from someone in TDCJ custody could cost as much as $27.75 after the connection fee.

Florida Department of Corrections

The Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) also contracts with Securus. Their collect call rates are:

  • $1.65 per minute for interstate calls
  • $0.17 per minute for intrastate calls
  • $2.49 connection fee per call

A 15-minute interstate collect call would be $27.24 after the connection fee. However, intrastate calls are more affordable at $2.55 for 15 minutes.

Minnesota Department of Corrections

In Minnesota, CenturyLink provides ICS to the Department of Corrections (MNDOC) facilities. Their rates are:

  • $0.30 per minute for interstate collect calls
  • $0.21 per minute for intrastate collect calls
  • $3.95 connection fee per call

Here, a 15-minute interstate collect call would be $9.45 with the connection fee. Much lower than the other states.

This comparison shows how widely rates can vary across state prison systems. But in all instances, the per-minute charges and connection fees quickly add up, putting strain on budgets.

Impact of High Rates on Inmates and Families

Research has shown that regular communication with family and friends during incarceration has many benefits. It reduces recidivism rates, improves rehabilitation, and leads to more successful reentry. But these excessive ICS rates undermine those benefits in several ways:

Financial Burden

Placing the financial burden primarily on receiving parties causes great hardship for many already struggling families. One study found that nearly a third of families accrued debt from charges for prisoner communication services. The strain may cause them to communicate less frequently, though it remains vital to their family dynamic.

Weakened Relationships

High costs mean prisoners and families must limit their call length and frequency to control expenses. But shorter, fewer calls weaken their critical relationships. A typical prison visit can last up to an entire day, while costly 15-minute phone calls offer little substantive communication.

Isolation and Mental Health Issues

Limiting communication contributes to prisoners feeling isolated and disconnected from their support systems, which can exacerbate existing mental health conditions. A prisoner survey found the cost for phone calls was the leading source of stress and frustration with family communication.

Recidivism Concerns

Studies show that inmates who frequently communicate with family have lower recidivism rates after release. But with high costs deterring this communication, rates of inmates reoffending may increase. Maintaining family ties is key to successful reintegration.

While inmates and families bear the direct costs, the entire public pays the price if high ICS rates undermine rehabilitation efforts.

Federal and State Efforts to Lower Rates

Over the past decade, the extremely high cost of prison phone calls has received greater public scrutiny. In response, some federal and state authorities have pursued measures to reduce rates.

Federal Communications Commission Rate Caps

In 2013, the FCC took its first major step by capping interstate ICS rates and fees. The Order limited calls to a maximum of:

  • $0.25 per minute for debit/prepaid calls
  • $0.21 per minute for collect calls
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These caps reduced interstate calling rates by up to 50% for some inmates. But a court challenge by ICS providers blocked implementation, so rates largely remained unchanged.

In 2015, the FCC succeeded in cutting rates further with caps of:

  • $0.13 per minute for prepaid calls
  • $0.14 per minute for collect calls

The FCC also prohibited commission fees and capped ancillary charges for things like account deposits. Though intrastate calls were unaffected, this reform resulted in much lower interstate calling rates for inmates and their families.

In 2020, the FCC set tiered rate caps per minute based on facility size to account for differences in costs for providers. The national average under the new tiers is just $0.08 per minute.

State Reforms

Some states have also pursued policies to lower intrastate rates, though significant progress remains limited.

Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Maryland:

  • Lowered intrastate rates through legislation or directives

Illinois and West Virginia:

  • Eliminated or reduced site commission fees paid by providers to facilities

California and Colorado:

  • Removed mandate for in-person account funding and allowed deposits by mail

While impactful for those states, expenses related to intrastate calls, which account for a majority of calls from prison, largely continue unabated around the country.

Alternative Options to Lower Costs

Beyond rate caps, some other potential options exist that could improve affordability of prison calls:

Open Bidding

Instead of sole-source contracts, facilities could utilize an open bidding process that creates competition and drives down rates and fees. This fosters a fairer market.

Public Utilities Regulation

Bringing ICS under the authority of utility regulators would provide stronger oversight against unjust and unreasonable rates.

Reevaluate Site Commissions

Eliminating or reducing commissions paid to prisons and states would lower the overhead costs passed through to consumers. However, this risks budget impacts for corrections departments.

Advance Pay Accounts

Prepaid accounts funded in advance offer per-minute rates significantly below collect. But initial funding can be a barrier for economically disadvantaged families. Providing easy low-cost funding options could expand access.

Video Visitation

Onsite or remote video visits could supplement phone calls with more meaningful interaction. But adding these expensive options to replace in-person visits raises ethical concerns. Video should not become a new profit center.

While the reform landscape has seen progress, considerable work remains at both federal and state levels before the longstanding issue of unaffordable prison phone rates can be truly resolved. The ability to maintain family connections can be the lifeline needed to get inmates back on track for reentry. Policy changes that make communications accessible serve the best interest of inmates, their loved ones, corrections systems, and the public alike.

Major Criminal Cases Involving Prison Phone Use

Prison phone systems provide vital communication but can also be used by inmates for criminal purposes. Here are five high-profile cases where prosecutors used recorded prison phone calls as evidence of illegal schemes and activities occurring within correctional facilities:

El Chapo

Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was convicted on drug trafficking charges in 2019 and sentenced to life in prison. Prosecutors used over 200 intercepted prison phone calls to implicate El Chapo in overseeing the cartel’s operations, drug deals, and violence while incarcerated.

Larry Nassar

Disgraced USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar continued sexually abusing young women after his 2017 child pornography conviction. On prison calls he was caught directing his victims to not cooperate with police investigating other sex crimes he committed.

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Fyre Festival

Billy McFarland promoted the failed 2017 Fyre Festival while serving 6 years in prison for fraud. Prosecutors provided evidence from recorded calls of McFarland’s efforts to still book talent for future fraudulent projects. He received an additional 3 years for the scheme.

Anthony Casso

Mafia hitman Anthony Casso ordered the murder of Gambino boss John Gotti from federal prison in 1998. Phone transcripts showed Casso conspiring with accomplices on plans to carry out the assassination while incarcerated.

Ronald Tabak

In 2017, evidence from recorded calls revealed New Jersey inmate Ronald Tabak discussing arrangements for having a witness against him murdered before his trial. He received an additional 15 years for trying to organize the hit.

As these cases show, prison phone systems require monitoring to detect serious criminal offenses being conducted from behind bars. The records provide an invaluable window allowing authorities to hold the incarcerated accountable for crimes committed within correctional facilities.

How are prison phone calls monitored?

Phone systems are set up to enable corrections officials to monitor, record, and restrict inmate phone use. All calls made through inmate calling services are subject to recording and surveillance, except privileged legal calls. Monitoring aims to preserve security by detecting plans for criminal activity.

Can inmates use cell phones in prison?

No, prisoners are prohibited from possessing personal cellphones. Contraband cellphones smuggled into prisons represent a major security issue, allowing inmates to evade phone monitoring. Authorities utilize cell signal jamming and detection technology to confiscate mobiles and cut off unmonitored communications.

What are the standard hours for inmate calls?

Most facilities allow inmate phone usage only during specified hours, such as between 8am-10pm. The limited hours provide periods of quiet and prevent disruptions during late night lockdowns. Calls are generally limited to 20 minutes to allow for shared access.

Can inmates receive calls or make 3-way calls?

Inmate phone systems are restricted to only allow outgoing collect calls or calls using prepaid accounts. Incoming calls and conference calls are blocked to maintain security protocols.

How can families save money on inmate calls?

Using prepaid accounts instead of collect calls offers lower per-minute rates. Compile approved call lists so charges are only to select numbers. Keep conversations focused, avoid small talk, and stick to time limits to minimize call length and expense. Fund accounts in bulk when possible to avoid deposit fees.

Conclusion

For families separated by incarceration, maintaining meaningful communication is tremendously important, but prohibitively high costs for prison phone calls undermine these vital relationships. Collect calls from correctional facilities remain financially straining due to inflated fees driven by a lack of oversight and competition in inmate calling services. Rate caps and state reforms have begun addressing the issue, but eliminating commissions and providing affordable communication options should be an ongoing priority.

Access to reasonably priced phone services provides inmates the connection to loved ones needed to facilitate rehabilitation and successful reentry. As research shows, keeping families bonded reduces recidivism and benefits incarcerated individuals, their relatives on the outside, correctional facilities, and ultimately the general public. While monitoring of prison calls is necessary, phone rates must be reined in to prevent communication that is essential to the wellbeing of inmates and society from becoming yet another form of punishment.

Prison Inside Team

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We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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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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