Connecting state and local government leaders
It marks a major win for advocates who have for years argued incarcerated people are getting overcharged for calls. But it will also crimp a revenue source for states and localities.
For over two decades, civil rights advocates and consumer groups have criticized states and local governments for padding their budgets by charging people behind bars high phone rates.
One prominent critic in Washington, D.C., Martha Wright-Reed, a now-deceased former nurse who was blind, for example, complained in a 2000 class-action lawsuit that she had to pay $2,000-a-year to talk to her grandson when he was in jail for manslaughter.
Now, after years of regulatory and court battles, the federal government will cap how much state prisons and local jails can charge inmates for calls. President Biden last week signed a bipartisan law, named after Wright-Reed, ordering the Federal Communications Commission to set “just and reasonable rates” for the calls in the next 18 months.
To critics, the prices–which the FCC said in 2015 could be as high as $14 a minute–can make it difficult for the incarcerated to stay in touch with their friends and families, increasing the chances they'll end up back in jail after they get out and worsening the pain of families who’ve seen loved ones locked away.
“It's very important when people come out to be able to have somebody who they stay with, who’s going to help get them a job and help them get back on their feet, who can vouch for them so they are able to earn a living,” said Cheryl Leanza, an advisor for the United Church of Christ, one of the groups that have pressed for a change.
“There’s a cost as well for children whose parents are incarcerated. They need to know that their parent loves them and cares for them. And they need to feel solid in that relationship for them to succeed in the rest of their life,” Leanza added. “You want to keep families intact.”
Moneymaker for Prisons and Jails
Charging incarcerated people high amounts to make phone calls has raised money for prisons and jails. When Dallas County, Texas, for example, lowered its rates to 1-cent a minute in 2020, it meant giving up $2.4 million a year that a prison phone company had been paying to reap profits from charging inmates higher prices.
Matthew Saxton, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association, said in an interview that counties in his state have spent the funds on services for inmates, including buying books for libraries and providing educational programs.
Some jails have begun offering video calls so inmates can communicate face-to-face with their family members, said Saxton, who said he hoped the FCC will not set rates so low that counties would not be able to afford making video calls available.
“I’d hate to see inmates have to go back to communicating with their families by pen and paper,” said Saxton, the retired sheriff of Calhoun County, Michigan, who questioned whether “law-abiding taxpayers” should have to pick up the cost for the calls.
A better course for the federal government, he said, would be to lower the overall cost of operating jails. He noted, for example, that under federal law, those who are incarcerated are not eligible for Medicaid, meaning health care expenses fall on jails.
How some counties have used money they’ve made from the calls has come under scrutiny.
One reason local jail phone rates are so high is that telephone companies in many places pay counties what are known as “site commissions” in return for getting exclusive rights to provide phone service to inmates, and then pass on the cost to callers.
The Pennsylvania news site PennLive, for instance, reported this week that since 2019, Dauphin County around Harrisburg, collected $3.4 million on the commissions–payments that advocacy groups deride as “kickbacks.”
County spokesman Brett Hambright said the funds have helped pay for government expenses like buying body cameras, hiring former Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel as a consultant on prison reforms, building a fence so inmates have outdoor recreation space and providing two monthly video visits for each inmate.
But according to spending records, the report said, the money was also used to pay for gun range memberships, appreciation meals and fitness trackers for county employees.
Hambright defended the use of the money on things to help retain workers, a problem many local governments around the country are struggling with.
“Anything we can do to better equip, train, and prepare our corrections staff–without further impact on the taxpayer–we will explore and consider,” he said.
Wide Range of Rates
The FCC is expected to lower the rates inmates pay. But Jonathan Thompson, executive director and CEO of the National Sheriffs' Association said that the sheriffs were able to support the bill after lawmakers agreed to require the commission to factor in the costs of running jails into setting the rates. The FCC will also be required to consider the differences in the cost of running jails of different sizes.
The bipartisan law, sponsored by Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, and recently-retired Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, is expected to level the playing field after moves by states and counties have led to wildly different call prices around the country.
The FCC under the Obama administration in 2015 capped the amount all inmates had to pay, whether they were locked up in state prisons or local jails and if they were calling within or outside the state, at 11-cents a minute–or $1.65 for a 15-minute call.
That was a major cut from the $2.80 average price inmates in state prisons were paying to make a 15-minute call to someone outside the state and the $3.39 to call people in the same state in 2014, according to an analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative, an advocacy group for the incarcerated. Those in county jails in 2016 were paying $6.74 for the same 15 minute call in-state.
Phone companies serving jails and prisons challenged the Obama era rates, and the newly-elected Trump administration decided not to defend the rules in court. A federal appeals court ruled that while the FCC could cap rates for calls across states, they did not have the authority to limit charges for calls within states. The new law signed by Biden clarifies that the FCC does have that power.
Even though the FCC has been unable to set a cap on how much it costs to call people in-state, rates at prisons are down. A 15-minute in-state call from a prison averaged $1.20 in 2021, according to the Prison Policy Initiative study.
Local jails, though, have not lowered their prices as much, likely because revenue from phone calls is less meaningful to states than counties and because those in local jails have shorter sentences, said Wanda Bertram, co-author of the Prison Policy Initiative study.
The average cost of a 15-minute call from a local jail has fallen, the analysis found, but only to $3.15 in 2021, which is still far more than if the call were made from a state prison.
There are wide disparities in call prices between counties and states. According to data compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative, those in Minnesota jails paid an average in 2021 of $5.47 for a 15-minute call in the state. Meanwhile, the rates for the same call in South Dakota averaged $5.33 and in North Dakota $4.70.
The highest local rates in the nation, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, are in Nassau County on New York’s Long Island, where in-state calls cost $4.35 for the first minute and 40-cents for each minute after. County officials did not respond to requests for comment.
In comparison, the California Public Utilities Commission in 2021 capped how much inmates can be charged in both state and local prisons at just 7-cents a minute, or the equivalent of $1.05 for a 15 minute call.
Dallas County, Texas Judge Clay Jenkins, who pushed for the rate in his county to be dropped to 1-cent a minute in 2020, said in an interview that the fast-growing county was seeing revenues rise swiftly enough to not feel the pain of losing the money they were getting paid.
Other governments might not be in the same situation, he noted. “What you have to keep in mind, though,” Jenkins added, “is that revenue shouldn’t be raised this way.”
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty.