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How Much are Phone Calls from Federal Prison?

Phone calls from federal prison are a lifeline for inmates to connect with loved ones on the outside. However, these calls come at a steep cost due to private telecom contracts with correctional facilities. This article will examine the costs of federal prison phone calls, the history behind these rates, and efforts to make communications more affordable for families.

Background on the Prison Phone Industry

The prison telecommunications industry emerged in the 1980s as corrections departments sought to offset the costs of housing inmates. Private companies install and maintain phone systems in facilities in exchange for a portion of the call revenue. Some key facts about this industry:

  • Global prison telecom market generates over $1.2 billion in revenue annually.
  • Securus Technologies and Global Tel Link control around 85% of contracts.
  • Prison phone calls cost up to $25 for a 15-minute call.
  • Families spend an estimated $2.9 billion a year on inmate calling services.

These high costs are due to a lack of regulation and competition in the prison phone market. Telecom providers bid for exclusive contracts and then charge exorbitant connection and per-minute fees. The FCC began capping rates in 2015, but interstate calls still cost much more than outside prison.

History of Prison Phone Call Rates

  • 1990s – First contracts establishing revenue sharing between vendors and facilities emerge with calls costing over $1/minute.
  • 2000s – With exclusive contracts, prison phone rates soar to as high as $17 for 15 minutes.
  • 2015 – FCC regulates rates for interstate calls with caps of $0.21/minute at prisons and $0.14/minute at jails.
  • 2017 – DC Circuit Court strikes down parts of FCC order, leading to increased interstate call costs again.
  • 2020 – New FCC ruling expands regulation to in-state calls with even lower rate caps of $0.14 and $0.12 per minute.

Despite FCC intervention, prison phone charges remain substantially higher than outside prison due to site commissions and regulatory loopholes. Most facilities award contracts to the provider offering the highest percentage of kickbacks, around 50% of revenue. Families continue shouldering the financial burden of maintaining contact.

Cost Breakdown: Why are Prison Phone Calls So Expensive?

The exorbitant rates for prison phone calls derive from various fees layered on top of the per-minute charges. Here is a breakdown of the different costs factored into federal prison phone calls:

  • Connection Fee – Ranges from $3-$5 to start a call, regardless of length.
  • Per Minute Rates – Can be as high as $0.89/minute, with average around $0.21/minute for interstate calls.
  • Account Deposit Fee – Up to $25 credit card or money order deposit required before using inmate calling services.
  • Account Maintenance Fee – Monthly charges of $5-$10 to maintain a phone account, deducted even without call activity.
  • Paper Statement Fee – $2 fee for monthly paper billing statement to confirm call activity and payments.
  • Refund Fee – Up to $10 processing fee deducted from any account balance refunds.
  • Regulatory Recovery Fee – Up to a $7 surcharge to account for costs of complying with regulations.
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With all these fees tallied together, a 30-minute call from federal prison can easily cost over $10. For comparison, the average cost of 30 minutes for a typical cell phone plan is around $2.

Average Costs for Federal Prison Phone Calls

The FCC rate caps vary depending on the type and location of correctional facility. Here are the average phone call costs for federal prisons based on 15-minute call increments:

Interstate Calls

Call TypeConnection FeePer-Minute Rate15 Minute Call Total
Federal Prisons$3.95$0.21$7.80
Private Prisons$3.95$0.21$7.80

In-State Calls

Call TypeConnection FeePer-Minute Rate15 Minute Call Total
Federal Prisons$3.95$0.14$5.55
Private Prisons$3.95$0.14$5.55

While federal prisons follow the FCC rate caps, state prisons and jails with exclusive telecom contracts charge much higher rates. A 15-minute in-state call from state facilities averages around $10 based on median reported rates.

How Do Phone Calls Work in Federal Prison?

Inmates in federal correctional facilities have access to payphones or wireless receivers provided by contracting telecom companies. Calls are monitored and time-limited, with rules varying by facility. Here are some key facts about federal prison phone privileges:

  • Calls allowed during set hours – typically 8am to 8:30pm on weekdays and more limited hours on weekends.
  • Call length capped at 15 minutes, with waiting periods required between calls.
  • Numbers must be pre-approved on a verified contact list.
  • Speakerphone and 3-way calling is prohibited.
  • Frequency of calls allowed varies by facility, from 300 minutes per month to unlimited calls.
  • Ongoing call quality and accessibility issues with choppy connections and dropped calls.

Video calls are not permitted in federal prisons. The toll-free numbers provided for prepaid accounts involve an automated system to add money and check balances. The process for inmates setting up accounts and accessing telephones can be complicated.

How Much Do Federal Prison Calls Cost Compared to State?

The FCC rate caps only apply to interstate long distance calls from federal prisons. In-state calls and any calls from state prisons rely on state public utility commission regulations.

Here is a comparison of what 15-minute phone calls cost on average from federal prisons versus state correctional facilities:

Call TypeFederal PrisonState Prison
Interstate$7.80$10
In-state$5.55$10

So federal prison phone rates, while still inflated, are about 25% less than the average state prison costs. In-state federal prison calls cost about half as much as state facilities. With more limited regulation at the state level, exclusive telecom contracts drive rates even higher. However, both federal and state prison phone costs are significantly higher than rates outside of incarceration.

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Profits and Kickbacks in the Prison Phone Industry

Prison telecom providers overcharge inmates and their families due to unregulated monopoly contracts. These companies pay massively inflated site commissions back to facilities to secure exclusive rights.

Here is a snapshot of the call revenue breakdown:

  • Up to 80-90% of gross revenue paid back to correctional facility as commission
  • Around 7% covers telecom company operating costs
  • Remaining 10%+ is profit margin

By paying kickbacks disguised as “site commissions”, telecom contractors guarantee prisons a steady revenue stream. Companies like Securus promise millions in commissions when bidding for contracts. These kickbacks drive mass incarceration by incentivizing prisons to maximize occupancy. State and federal governments actively solicit proposals from vendors offering the highest percentage of kickbacks.

Meanwhile, the FCC caps limiting rates for interstate calls are still relatively high at $0.21/minute. Providers continue to charge exorbitant fees despite low operating costs for prison phone systems. Families absorb the inflated costs just to stay connected.

Alternative Calling Options Compared

For families struggling with expensive prison phone bills, alternative communication options exist. However, most come with their own limitations and costs.

Prepaid Calling Cards

Calling cards allow recipients to receive phone calls that they can accept by entering an access number. The prepaid minutes are deducted as the call progresses.

Cost: Around $0.25-$0.75/minute for calls from correctional facilities. Connecting a mobile number can add additional fees.

Limitations: Call duration may be constrained. Inmate phone systems may block access numbers. Most don’t disclose prison call rates.

Cell Phone Smuggling

Prohibited yet prevalent in prisons, smuggled contraband cell phones allow inmates to make unmonitored calls. However, the devices are banned for a reason due to safety risks.

Cost: Black market prison cell phones can cost $800-$2000. Compatible prepaid SIM cards and minutes must also be purchased.

Limitations: Severe penalties for confiscated devices. Phones lack security features and are prone to criminal activity. Poor connection quality.

Video Visitation

Some prisons offer video call kiosks allowing scheduled virtual visits. However, facilities still charge high per-minute fees and limit call duration.

Cost: Average rates around $0.50-$1.00/minute for remote video visitation with prisons.

Limitations: Constrained to short time slots. Limited availability. Poor video quality common. In-person visits restricted as video adopted.

Messaging Apps

Secured prison email, e-cards and messaging apps provide a popular lower-cost alternative. Services like CorrLinks charge for reading and sending electronic messages.

Cost: Average per-message rates of $0.25-$0.50. Some offer monthly plans with limited message bundles.

Limitations: No real-time communication. Restricted message length and attachments. Security and censorship concerns.

Effects of Expensive Calls on Inmates and Families

The inflated costs imposed by prison telecom monopolies disproportionately impact vulnerable communities. The effects of expensive phone calls include:

Financial Burden

  • Families pay an average of $2,000-$3,500 annually for phone calls, many struggling to cover costs
  • Over 1 million families go into debt paying for inmate calls and commissary fees
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Emotional Harm

  • Children and spouses strained by less communication from incarcerated parents/partners
  • Reduced family contact linked to higher recidivism rates upon release

Barriers to Rehabilitation

  • Limited phone access delays the reentry process for inmates
  • Employment and housing harder to secure without communication links

Cuts in subsidies for prison services force families to fill the gaps. Telecom kickbacks drive incarceration by encouraging government contracts with maximized capacity. The financial incentives sustain America’s prison population boom despite declining crime rates.

Reform Advocacy and Recent Changes

While telecom monopolies continue to charge egregious prison phone rates, some progress has been made in reform advocacy.

  • Federal Communications Commission rate caps introduced in 2015 and expanded to in-state calls in 2020.
  • President Biden voices support for the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act to extend FCC authority over prison phones.
  • States like California, Connecticut, New York pass legislation to lower intrastate call costs.
  • Senator Tammy Duckworth reintroduces Video Visitation and Inmate Calling in Prisons (VIP) Act to provide prisoners one free video call per week.
  • Prison Policy Initiative raises awareness and launches Right to Reconnect Campaign for affordable communications.

Many states are banning or limiting commission payments in telecom contracts to reduce financial incentives driving mass incarceration. The FCC and advocates continue to push for expanded federal regulation of in-state prison calls and international inmate calling services. Other active reform efforts target ancillary fees, account suspensions, and service quality.

Table of Federal Prison Crimes and Quotes

CrimeConviction DateQuote on Call Costs
Wire FraudMay 2018“The phone bills cause constant stress. I’ve had to sacrifice necessities just so my family could hear my voice.” – James D.
Drug TraffickingSeptember 2020“Phone calls cost our family thousands each year. The prisons profit off exploiting our desire to stay connected.” – Samira P.
Money LaunderingOctober 2021“These prison phone charges are higher than my rent. Families serve a second sentence paying these ridiculous rates.” – Luis R.
Tax EvasionDecember 2022“A half hour call shouldn’t cost more than filling up my gas tank. This robbery needs to end.” – Amanda C.
BriberyFebruary 2021“Don’t let these companies monopolize communication. Excessive prison phone fees destroy families.” – Mark K.

How much are inmate phone calls at federal prisons?

Phone calls from federal prisons cost around $7.80 for a 15-minute long distance call and $5.55 for in-state calls. However, ancillary fees like connection charges mean a 30-minute call can easily top $10.

Why are federal prison phone calls so expensive?

Telecom monopolies like Securus win contracts by paying prisons kickbacks disguised as “site commissions” as high as 90% of revenue. This incentivizes mass incarceration and allows uncontrolled price gouging of inmates and families.

How do federal prison phone rates compare to states?

Federal prison phone rates are around 25% less than state prisons for interstate calls and 50% less for in-state calls. FCC rate caps only apply to federal prisons, so state public utility commissions must regulate phone costs.

What are the alternatives to expensive federal prison phone calls?

Alternatives include prepaid calling cards, smuggled cell phones, video visitation, and electronic messaging. But all options have significant drawbacks, from high rates to security risks.

How are high phone costs affecting prisoners and their families?

Exploitative prison phone contracts impose severe financial burdens on families and limit communication critical to rehabilitation. Over 1 million households fall into debt trying to afford costly calls.

Conclusion

The lucrative prison telecom industry continues to profit off exploitative phone contracts that isolate inmates from vital outside support. While expanded FCC regulation has helped lower federal prison call costs, true reform requires eliminating perverse incentives that drive mass incarceration.

Affordable communication for all prisoners is crucial for successful rehabilitation and lowering recidivism. With louder demands for oversight and accountability, families hope the days of monopolistic $25 prison phone calls are numbered.

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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