Imagine you are a 17 year old with a six-month jail sentence in Massachusetts. You are the oldest of four children, and your parents work minimum wage jobs. You usually take care of your siblings after school because your family cannot afford childcare, and you’ve never been away from home before. You miss your family and the comforts of home, and want to call your mom, but you know that a 30-minute call will cost the same as a precious hour of childcare for your siblings. What do you do?
Unfortunately, this is a problem faced by many incarcerated individuals and their families. The cost of phone calls from prisons and jails has historically been a problem, to say the least, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, the issue has made its way into the public eye. As visiting hours were cancelled to prevent the spread of the virus, families with incarcerated loved ones found themselves having to choose between spending their money on keeping in touch with their incarcerated relatives, or on essential items such as food and childcare. However, now that visiting hours are slowly being reinstated, the cost of phone calls largely remains the same.
It is unethical to put a price on human contact. Even if one accepts the premise that certain crimes should be punished with incarceration, by no means does that incarceration have to include all of the hardships that are taken for granted, especially the lack of human contact. Lowering or eliminating the cost of phone calls from prisons and jails is a moral imperative.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of phone calls which can be made from prisons and jails: out-of-state (including international) and intrastate. The Federal Communications Commission controls only out-of-state calls, and voted to put a price cap of 21 cents per minute in 2015. In May of 2021, the FCC voted to lower the minimum to 12 cents an hour — which is the Federal Prison Industry’s minimum wage — but this price has not yet hit the market.
The FCC also attempted to put a cap on intrastate calls, which make up for 80% of all calls, but a federal appeals court ruled that they could not do so because it was out of their jurisdiction. This issue of jurisdiction explains the wide range of prices of phone calls from county jails — in the United States, the average cost of a 15-minute call is $5.74, and they can cost up to $24.92.
Why is this too expensive? In 2014, the Prison Policy Initiative found that the median annual income of incarcerated individuals was $19,185 before they were incarcerated, which is 41% lower than non-incarcerated individuals of similar ages. This income comes out to approximately $50 per day, meaning that a family which called an incarcerated loved one every day could spend half of their yearly income on those 15 minute calls alone.
Phone calls are so expensive because of the “kickback system,” wherein the phone companies pay a commission to the prison or jail. This practice began when phone companies began offering commissions to win contracts, which led prisons and jails to choose companies with high commissions over companies with lower prices. These kickbacks inflate the cost of phone calls, and the incarcerated people have no option but to pay the high cost, while the prisons and jails make money. Only a few phone companies control the market, so they have little incentive to lower prices. This creates a situation where large technology companies exploit the most vulnerable in society for their own profit — a report from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights noted that more than one-third of the families of incarcerated people go into debt to pay for phone calls and visits alone.
During the coronavirus pandemic, federal correctional facilities instituted free phone calls after suspending visits due to the risk of COVID-19 exposure. However, many state and county facilities either did not follow suit or rolled them back too soon. For poorer incarcerated people, this meant a loss in communication altogether; in a time when the whole country was suffering from loneliness, the most vulnerable suffered the most.
Incarceration itself leads to poor mental health. According to the Prison Policy Project, “the carceral environment can be inherently damaging to mental health by removing people from society and eliminating meaning and purpose from their lives.” Causes of this damage range from loss of autonomy to punitive conditions, and not being able to call home because of the cost only exacerbates these issues.
Moreover, the cost of phone calls can make organizing a defense extremely costly, because people detained pretrial who cannot afford bail have to coordinate their defense while incarcerated — and on their dollar. Sometimes, they can get the cost billed to the Public Defender’s office, but public defenders are chronically underfunded, and some have been forced to reduce the number of calls they can take, making it even more difficult to coordinate with their clients.
Additionally, data show that the recidivism rate is reduced for those who maintain contact with their families during their incarceration. According to a 1972 study, “only 50% of the ‘no contact’ inmates completed their first year on parole without being arrested, while 70% of those with three visitors were ‘arrest free’ during this period. In addition, the ‘loners’ were six times more likely to wind up back in prison during the first year.” Clearly, the positive impact of these phone calls is significant.
Fortunately, there has been some progress in making phone calls free. In 2020, San Francisco announced that it would permanently make phone calls free from county jails. Also in 2020, Connecticut became the first and only state to make all phone calls from prison completely free. In 2021, Massachusetts decided to provide 10 minutes a week of free calls. But there is more work to be done.
Human connection is a human right. A child should always be able to talk to their parents; a partner should always be given the right to talk to their significant other. On a moral level, it is cruel to allow corporate greed to destroy the few opportunities that families of incarcerated individuals have to be connected to one another. When you also factor in the tangible benefits of phone calls, like the fairness of pre-trial preparation and the reduced recidivism, it seems like a no-brainer that phone calls should be made free.