The high cost of phone calls in prisons generates $1.4 billion a year, disproportionately driving women and people of color into debt

Prison inmates making phone calls
Inmates make collect phone calls at the Sheriff’s Central Men’s Jail in 2011. H. Lorren Au Jr./MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images
  • The correctional telecom sector is a business that annually generates $1.4 billion in phone call revenue alone.
  • With Black people making up one-third of the prison population in the US, the high costs of phone and video calls further the racial wealth gap.
  • This article is part of a series called “The Cost of Inequity,” examining the hurdles that marginalized and disenfranchised groups face across a range of sectors.

For three years, Myishea White and her 10-year-old daughter spoke on the phone with her husband, who is incarcerated, three to four times a day.

But in March, costs suddenly skyrocketed, making that routine untenable: White went from paying 4 cents per minute to call her husband to 13.5 cents per minute, with an added 99-cent fee every time she needed to add money to her call account.

Her husband’s correctional facility, in Carrabelle, Florida, seven hours from her home in Fort Pierce, Florida, switched from the telecommunications company Securus to Global Tel Link to provide calls to inmates.

White said the change was a “shock to the wallet” and that she now tries to cram everything she wants to say into a single phone call.

“It’s just hard because I don’t want to not talk to him,” White told Insider. “When I hear his voice, I hear his calm. I know it’s OK. It’s not easy when you don’t see the person you want to see on a daily basis. You want to be able to hear their voice every day. You want to make sure they’re OK.”

American households pay $1 billion to call family members in prison every year, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, which says that number is indicative of the exploitative fees that prison-telecommunications companies charge families like White’s to connect with loved ones behind bars. More than a third of families go into debt to pay for these phone calls and visits, according to the Ella Baker Center, a human-rights organization.

As with many aspects of the criminal-justice system, women and people of color disproportionately bear the brunt of this financial burden. In 63% of cases, family members of those incarcerated are responsible for the costs of these phone calls, and, of that number, 83% are women. Nearly one in every four women is related to someone who is incarcerated, but Black women like White are more substantially affected than their white peers: 44% of Black women have a family member who is imprisoned, compared to 12% of white women.

Wanda Bertram, a communications strategist at the Prison Policy Initiative, said the companies charging for prison calls are “extracting wealth from Black and brown communities.” It’s “people turning to their mothers, sisters, grandmothers, and girlfriends” to pay for staying in touch, she said.

Many families have no option but to pay the exorbitant fees: “If you’re in prison, you’re totally desperate to get in touch with your family,” Bertram said, and it’s made worse by the fact that incarcerated people are largely overlooked by the public. “Companies take advantage of that to deliver a shoddy product,” she added. For example, users of these technologies told Insider they’ve experienced technical difficulties that providers ignored.

Why the price of prison phone calls is being driven higher

Nearly every correctional agency in the country has a contract with a prison-telecommunications company like Securus or GTL, which combine to control 74 to 83% of the entire industry, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. The correctional-telecom sector is a business that annually generates $1.4 billion in phone-call revenue alone, according to the advocacy group Worth Rises.

Telecom companies list on their contract proposals the amount the correctional facility will bring in through profit sharing from calls – enticing prisons to pick the contract that offers the most money.

“This has served to create a bidding war among companies,” Bertram said. “It serves to drive the prices of phone calls higher. When the companies are basically competing to get more contracts, the only way they can do that is promising more money to facilities.”

But the costs of staying in touch have grown beyond just making calls. Companies like GTL also charge customers to upload money to their accounts: White pays 99 cents to add money to her account online and $5 over the phone. She can add only $50 at a time, causing her to pay the fee again and again.

“We’re getting ripped off by these large companies making money off the backs of people like me,” White said. “I’m struggling. I have a daughter. I receive assistance, but I still have to find a way to put money on the phone because my husband is incarcerated.”

Connecting with loved ones reduces recidivism, but prisons still charge for staying in touch

Black and brown communities across the country are overpoliced: Studies show Black people are disproportionately stopped by police, arrested, and imprisoned, and they make up one-third of the prison population in the US. The high costs of phone and video calls furthers the racial wealth gap, especially when families of incarcerated people are predominantly from low-income backgrounds.

Whether a person maintains ties with family and friends while in prison is linked to whether they’ll reoffend once they get out: A Minnesota Department of Corrections study found that even a single visit reduced recidivism by 13% for new crimes and 25% for technical violations.

“We are more likely to see people reenter successfully if they’re in communication with their families,” Bianca Tylek, the founder and director of Worth Rises, said. “There’s a deep interest that everyone should have in seeing communication be made free in prisons and jails.”

Families have also long litigated for their right to connect with loved ones, bringing cases to the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees the communications industry. The FCC limits the cost of cross-state phone calls to 21 cents per minute for prepaid and 25 cents for collect calls. But 80% of all calls are in-state calls, which are not regulated at the federal level. Lobbying by the biggest telecom firms has also crippled many families’ efforts, and state courts vary in their regulation of call rates.

Advocacy organizations are pushing for prisons and software companies to provide free calls in addition to legislation like the Inmate Calling Technical Corrections Act, which would clarify the FCC’s authority to regulate these calls and their fees.

Tech startups like Ameelio are also working to provide free, secure videoconferencing services that people can use to communicate with their loved ones in prison.

“There’s this endless list of ways that they just take some basic technology that we all had out here for a decade or two and then introduce it inside in a monetized way,” Tylek said. “That is so egregious not just because it’s so expensive but because so many of those technologies are available to us for free out here.”

But in the meantime, families across the country like White’s who just want to get in touch with their loved ones in prison will keep shelling out their savings to do so.

“Out here, you don’t pay a ton of money for a phone call. You don’t pay a ton of money for Zoom,” White said. “Why is it OK to charge families that kind of money? Why is there always a different set of rules when it comes to the department of corrections? Why don’t we have choices on the services we can choose?”