The high cost of prison phone calls prevents many families from communicating with incarcerated loved ones. Although no less an expert than South Africa’s late former president, Nelson Mandela, described such communication as “a human right [that] should not be restricted by the artificial gradations of a prison system …,” high costs severely obstruct the maintenance of familial bonds.1 As one analyst noted, “[a] fifteen-minute call could easily cost families between $10 and $17, and a one-hour call once a week would cost $250 per month.”2 More than 2.2 million individuals are incarcerated in the United States, and nearly all have family members, including children, who want to maintain close relationships.3 But due to exorbitant phone rates for calls from prisons far too many families have been forced to select between regular contact with incarcerated loved ones and meeting basic household needs.
Beyond the negative impact on families, high prison phone rates also weaken a community’s social fabric. Studies show a direct correlation between prisoners’ routine communication with their families and reduced recidivism.4 Prisoners who maintain regular contact with their loved ones are more likely to transition successfully back into their community and less likely to return to prison. Nonetheless, prison phone reform has been delayed for far too long. A recent Federal Communications Commission ruling offers a glimpse of hope, but change has been long overdue. On August 9, 2013, following a hearing on the policies associated with interstate phone calls, the commission voted 2 to 1 to cap the costs of interstate prison phone calls; it determined that $0.12 per minute was a reasonable “safe harbor” rate and imposed an absolute cap of $0.25 per minute for collect calls.5 However, intrastate calls remain subject to egregiously high rates.
Here I describe the long journey to reform and the policy implications associated with prison phone justice. I also offer a case study of a Minnesota-based advocacy campaign and recommend policy changes.
The Long Journey
Martha Wright, an 87-year-old grandmother and retired nurse, stepped up to become the public face for millions of families harmed by the high costs of prison phone calls. When her grandson, Ulandis Forte, went to prison in 1994, she was determined to keep in touch with him and maintain their relationship. Wright knew her grandson had made a mistake, but she did not want him to feel abandoned.
When Ulandis was moved to a facility in Arizona, thousands of miles away from his grandmother’s home in the District of Columbia, his collect telephone calls to her were the only way for them to remain connected. Wright spent nearly $1,000 per year from her fixed income on phone calls lasting fifteen minutes or less.
Prisoners’ phone calls, which are usually made collect and paid for by inmates’ families, are so expensive because the exclusive contracts between telephone service providers and state correctional agencies set high rates to begin with and then add “commissions” paid to the agencies that average 42 percent and can range up to 60 percent.6 Neither party to these contracts has an incentive to negotiate lower rates, inasmuch as the costs of the calls are paid by inmates or their families. Across the country, these high commissions—which some advocates call “kickbacks”—have brought $143 million annually into the coffers of state prison systems or the private corporations that operate them, to the detriment of struggling families who bear the costs.7
Ten years ago Wright became determined to take action. She filed a class action lawsuit in federal district court for the District of Columbia against the Corrections Corporation of America (which operated the prison where her grandson was incarcerated) and several telephone companies. The court found that primary jurisdiction lay with the Federal Communications Commission.8 Accordingly, in 2003 Wright filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission.9 As the named petitioner speaking for other affected families she articulated concerns about the negative impact of high prison phone call costs. The commission failed to respond, but community members broke the silence, lifting their voices on behalf of justice for children and families.10 “Tens of thousands of consumers … have written, emailed, and yes, phoned the commission, pleading for relief on interstate long distance rates from correctional facilities,” said Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn.11 In 2012, no longer able to remain silent, the Federal Communications Commission took initial steps to tackle the challenges associated with prison phone call services. The agency proposed new rules to regulate this lucrative industry, and in April 2013 it finished collecting public comments.
The commission determined that the inordinately high rates charged for prison phone calls were unrelated to the actual cost of phone services. While 85 percent of state prisons receive commissions from telephone providers, states that have banned commissions have seen prison phone prices drop by 30 percent to 80 percent.12 States that have adopted reform policies, such as New Mexico and New York, have seen a sustained, documented increase in call volumes.13 These data validate that reduced costs of prison phone calls enable prisoners to remain in contact with their loved ones and support networks.14
The exclusive contracts between telephone service providers and state correctional agencies set high rates to begin with and then add “commissions” paid to the agencies that average 42 percent.
High prison phone costs have far-reaching impact. The egregious rates make more vulnerable economically families who wish to stay in contact with incarcerated loved ones. If families are unable to afford continued contact, those who are incarcerated are left isolated and less able to make a smooth transition back home, increasing the likelihood of recidivism.15 Moreover, the legal rights of prisoners may be diminished if they must pay these high costs to remain in contact with their attorneys.
Children and Families. Most incarcerated parents are imprisoned over 100 miles from the home they previously occupied; thus phone calls are the most feasible form of maintaining familial bonds.16 During a recent Federal Communications Commission hearing, Bethany Fraser shared the challenges her family faces as she seeks to remain in regular contact with her incarcerated husband and help her 5- and 10-year-old sons do so as well. She testified that
losing their father to prison also meant losing over half of our family’s income, and gaining a painfully large phone bill. As you vote today I would like each of you to know that I would do anything, and pay any amount to keep my children connected to their father. But choosing between essential needs and keeping kids connected to their parents is a choice no family should have to make.17
Fraser was forced to downsize her family’s housing four times in two years to afford to allow her children to maintain contact with their father.18 Her children are among the 2.7 million across the country who have an incarcerated parent.19
During the same hearing, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel shed light on the social costs of high prison phone rates when she stated that “one number still haunts me, perhaps because I am a parent—across the country there are 2.7 million children who have at least one incarcerated parent. That is 2.7 million children who don’t know what it means to talk regularly to their mother or father.”20 For many families, a phone call is a bridge of hope that facilitates human connection in the absence of opportunities to visit in person.
Children of incarcerated parents often experience emotional stress analogous to the loss of their parent.21 This type of loss is termed “ambiguous” because, unlike with a death, the grieving process is frozen and closure prevented.22 Those who experience ambiguous loss are left with unreconciled feelings of grief and trauma. This particular type of stressor can lead to behavioral and emotional problems for children. One study found that 16 percent of children who have an incarcerated parent refused to attend school for up to six weeks after the incarceration.23 The Federal Communications Commission in its ruling cited a commenter’s statement that “lack of regular contact with incarcerated parents has been linked to truancy, homelessness, depression, aggression, and poor classroom performance in children.”24 Another study established that children of incarcerated parents are at a greater risk of developmental delays and other behavioral problems.25 Interaction between children and their incarcerated parents is one of the most effective tools for improving a child’s emotional state and reducing behavioral challenges during their parents’ imprisonment.26 Ensuring contact between prisoners and their children should be a focal point of reform efforts.
If families are unable to afford continued contact, those who are incarcerated are left isolated and less able to make a smooth transition back home, increasing the likelihood of recidivism.
Recidivism and Reintegration. Over two-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested within three years.27 Costly prison phone calls impede their successful reintegration by limiting strong family and community connections. When these opportunities are diminished, both human and economic resources are wasted. One survey of 40 states found that the average annual cost to taxpayers of incarcerating a single individual was $31,307 and over $70 billion is spent annually for corrections.28 One study demonstrates that a mere 1 percent reduction in recidivism would save $250 million annually in the United States.29 Such savings could be re-invested into crime prevention and intervention measures. Another study of 7,000 Florida prison inmates found that contact with loved ones dramatically reduced recidivism and that frequent contact with an outside support system extended the period before relapsing into criminal behavior even for those who did re-offend.30
Contact with Defense Attorneys. The high cost of prison phone calls also poses a challenge for inmates’ attorneys. Public defenders who represent indigent clients must remain in routine contact with their clients to provide counsel, develop trial strategy, and conduct investigations. However, the high cost of prison phone calls limits these attorneys’ ability to provide effective and comprehensive services that are essential to protecting their clients’ fundamental rights. Some public defenders report spending more than $100,000 annually on collect calls from their incarcerated clients.31 Thus the cost of prison phone calls limits a prisoner’s access to legal services and widens the justice gap.
Market Forces Versus Social Costs. The negative impact on families, increased risk of future incarceration, and limited access to legal services are all costs associated with high prison phone rates. Based upon this analysis, acting Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn reiterated the need for policy reform to set interstate phone call rates on the basis of cost. Both she and Commissioner Rosenworcel urged moving beyond examining market forces to consider as well the social justice challenges that families and communities face and to seek equity and justice for those most affected. Allowing market forces unfettered discretion had allowed the cost of a 15-minute phone call to soar to $20. A social justice analysis acknowledges the difficult decision that many families are forced to make as they choose between remaining in contact with their incarcerated loved ones and meeting basic household needs—and the importance of fair and reasonable phone rates in protecting the rights of these families.
Prison Phone Justice Reform in Minnesota
The Community Justice Project at the University of Saint Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis has partnered with the National Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, Center for Media Justice, and Media Access Grassroots Network to raise awareness about prison phone justice both nationally and locally. In Minnesota we have researched current rate structures, developed educational materials, and promoted community engagement. Minnesota’s prison phone services contract with Global Tel Link gives the state a 49 percent commission on prison phone calls, generating $1.44 million annually in revenue.32 The rate for intrastate calls, $3 plus $0.23 per minute, is the nation’s second highest (after Oregon), and a 15-minute collect interstate call costs over $17.33
To gain a deeper understanding of how prisoners and their families are affected by the high costs of prison phone calls, the Community Justice Project hosted a community listening session.34 Held at the Power of the People Leadership Institute, this session enabled community members to tell their stories and to be heard. The participants were formerly incarcerated men who had directly experienced the impact of the high rates of prison phone calls. These men are working together to have a positive impact on their communities and support the successful transition of other incarcerated men back into the community.
The former inmate credited regular phone communications and contact with his support network for restoring his personhood and said that phone calls make “you feel like a person, not like an object.”
In sharing their firsthand experiences, 78 percent of the men who participated in the listening session reported that while incarcerated they had less phone contact with their families than they desired. With their limited prison wages they could not afford to pay for the calls themselves, and their families could not afford to accept collect calls.
The men described phone calls as a valuable commodity in limited supply. One described the telephone as a “lifeline” to everything outside the prison. Another summarized the importance of phone contact: “hearing that voice that says they love you is your lifeline.” The connection to the outside was also compared to a “fistful of gold.” Another man described the daily reality of incarceration as being treated as chattel and experiencing the diminishing of one’s humanity. The former inmate credited regular phone communications and contact with his support network for restoring his personhood and said that phone calls make “you feel like a person, not like an object.”
Each of these accounts reflects the necessity, despite limited resources, of regular, routine phone contact between prisoners and their families. The accounts leave no doubt that the human connection to families that telephone communication allows is essential and that facilitating these connections through reduced phone rates will make families stronger.
Listening-session participants affirmed the importance of regular phone contact in reducing the likelihood of recidivism and creating opportunities for successful reintegration. One group member, with several others in agreement, described the transition period when leaving incarceration as a time of heightened vulnerability and uncertainty. The men shared that the need to make so many arrangements could cause one to make bad decisions. Many explained that the relationships they had nurtured during their incarceration through regular, costly phone contact helped them arrange housing and provided a support system upon release.
Recommendations for Change
The recent victory before the Federal Communications Commission is a key milestone in prison phone justice reform. Chairwoman Clyburn drew inspiration from the lyrics of Sam Cooke’s 1964 song entitled “A Change is Gonna Come,” which served as a tableau of the civil rights movement:
Oh there been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.35
A change has come, but more work remains. The next step is to reduce the high costs of intrastate calls in states such as Minnesota. Such reform will ensure that the rates of prison phone calls are just, reasonable, and fair.
I encourage advocates in states where the high costs of intrastate phone calls impede contact between prisoners and their families to contact me. I thank University of St. Thomas School of Law students Maria Bazakos, Alex Migambi, and Sarah Orange for their work on my article.
Clinical Law Faculty/Director of Diversity
Legal Services Clinic
University of Saint Thomas School of Law
30 S. 10th St.
Minneapolis, MN 55403
1 Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela 474 (1994).
2 Jamilah King, The Secret Weapon in the Prison Phone Rate Fight? Families, Colorlines (Aug. 12, 2013).
5 In re Rates for Interstate Inmate Calling Services, WC Docket No. 12-375 (F.C.C. Aug. 9, 2013) (Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking); Feds to Slash Cost of Phone Calls Made from Prison, CBS News (Aug. 9, 2013); Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, The FCC Vote on Prison Phone Rates: A Fact Sheet (n.d.); Press Release, Federal Communications Commission, FCC Bars High Rates for Long Distance Phone Calls in Jails and Prisons Nationwide (Aug. 9, 2013).
6 John E. Dannenberg, Nationwide PLN Survey Examines Prison Phone Contracts, Kickbacks, Prison Legal News (Oct. 23, 2012).
8 Martha Wright v. Corrections Corporation of America, No. 00-293 (D.D.C. filed Feb. 16, 2000).
9 Petition of Martha Wright et al. for Rulemaking or, in the Alternative, Petition to Address Referral Issues in Pending Rulemaking, CC Docket No. 96-128, at 3 (F.C.C. filed Nov. 3, 2003) (in my files). For a synopsis, see Center for Constitutional Rights, Martha Wright v. Corrections Corporation of America (FCC Petition) (n.d.).
10 King, supra note 2.
12 Dannenberg, supra note 6; Human Rights Defense Center, Comment in the Matter of Rates for Inmate Calling Services (submitted to Federal Communications Commission Dec. 20, 2013) (figures extrapolated by Steven Renderos of the Center for Media Justice).
13 In re Rates for Interstate Inmate Calling Services, WC Docket No. 12-375.
23 La Vigne et al., supra note 16, at 7.
24 In re Rates for Interstate Inmate Calling Services, WC Docket No. 12-375, at 3.
25 Bruce Western & Becky Pettit, Incarceration & Social Inequality, Daedalus, Summer 2010, at 15.
26 La Vigne et al., supra note 16, at 10; Pew Center on the States, State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons (April 2011).
28 Christian Henrichson & Ruth Delaney, Vera Institute of Justice, The Price of Prisons: What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers 9 (March 20, 2012); Daryl Kosiak, Healthcare and Medical Assistance for Prisoners, in Corrections 119 (William J. Chambliss ed., 2011); Billions Behind Bars: Inside America’s Prison Industry, CNBC (2013); National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP Smart and Safe Campaign, Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate, Under Educate: Excessive Spending on Incarceration Undermines Educational Opportunity and Public Safety in Communities (April 2011).
29 In re Rates for Interstate Inmate Calling Services, WC Docket No. 12-375.
30 Minnesota Department of Corrections, supra note 4, at 9.
31 In re Rates for Interstate Inmate Calling Services, WC Docket No. 12-375, at 25.
32 John E. Dannenberg, Nationwide PLN Survey Examines Prison Phone Contracts, Kickbacks, Prison Legal News, April 2011, at 17.
34 The listening session testimony I describe here is based on my personal knowledge. It will be recounted in greater detail in a report to be published next year; see Margaret Higgins, Artika Tyner et al., University of St. Thomas School of Law Community Justice Project, The Impact of Telephone Communication for Prisoners: A Report on the Experiences of the Members of the Power of the People Leadership Institute (forthcoming 2014).
35 Larry Buford, Electronic Urban Report, Sam Cooke in the Civil Rights Mix (Sept. 29, 2013).