Text reads: Saying "I Love You" Shouldn't Cost A Thing: Inside the Overpriced World of Prison Phone Calls

Saying “I Love You” Shouldn’t Cost A Thing: Inside the Overpriced World of Prison Phone Calls

This holiday season — and every season — everyone deserves the comfort of connecting with their loved ones. But for people who are incarcerated and their families, it’s not as easy as picking up the phone.

We think everyone can agree that the criminal legal system should not be a for-profit endeavor that takes advantage of people. But for decades the predatory prison telecom industry has charged absurdly high rates to make phone calls from prison and jail. Families of color are impacted disproportionately by this unjust system, and too many families are forced into debt just to hear their loved ones’ voices.

How did this happen? And what can we do to help?

Making Phone Calls From Prisons and Jails is Really Expensive

How expensive? While most of us probably don’t think about phone calls in terms of cost per minute anymore, people who are incarcerated have no choice. They regularly pay $5 or more just to make a 15-minute phone call.

Sometimes earning only pennies an hour, if anything, it can take days to save enough to make a single call home. If that wasn’t bad enough, these high prices are often full of hidden fees and surcharges that make it even more costly just to hear a loved one’s voice.

So…who’s setting these unfair prices and filling their pockets while families struggle?

The Prison Telecom Industry is Responsible

While the massive $1.4 billion prison telecom industry is responsible for this injustice, it’s actually two corporations, Securus (now Aventiv) and GTL (now ViaPath), that deserve most of the blame. Together, they control roughly 80% of the prison and jail telecom market and wield tremendous power.

In exchange for exclusive contracts, these corporations pay off prisons and jails with financial incentives in the form of “commissions,” making this unjust system even harder to reform or break.

High Costs Hurt Families Directly

The brutal cost of prison and jail phone calls has a profoundly negative impact. In fact, 1 in 3 of the families who are supporting a loved one who is incarcerated goes into debt just trying to stay connected.

And it’s not only adults who suffer.

In the US, 1 in 28 children have a parent who is incarcerated, and regular communication is essential to their well being. Every child deserves to hear their parent say “I love you,” and the cost of a call should never be the reason they can’t.

Penalizing families with a loved one who is incarcerated is cruel. Yet that is exactly what is happening.

Poor Communities Are Impacted Disproportionately

It’s doubly unfair that most of the families affected by this cruel system have low incomes. Choosing between paying rent and staying connected with a cherished family member is a choice no one should have to make.

And women — disproportionately Black and Brown women — bear the heaviest burden, carrying 87% of these costs.

Phone Calls Make a Difference for Everyone

Why is calling home so important? Let’s start with safety.

Unsurprisingly, regular access to communication has been shown to reduce violence in prisons by as much as 20%. That may be because people who stay connected to family and friends while incarcerated are more likely to have hope for their future and participate in rehabilitation programs. 

They are also far less likely to re-enter prison after release. Successful futures for people who are formerly incarcerated benefit everyone — families, communities, and society as a whole.

Progress is (Finally) Being Made

Thanks to the brave families who have spoken up to demand change and the work of advocacy groups like Worth Rises, there is finally some positive action to celebrate. 

A growing number of jurisdictions have recently made, or are in the process of making, phone calls not just cheaper, but FREE:

  • The Federal Bureau of Prisons
  • Five state prison systems (CA, CO, CT, MA, MN)
  • Several county jails 

It’s made a huge difference. Over the last 5 years, these new policies have saved families over $300 million!

Additionally, in December 2022, Congress passed the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act. This landmark new law gives the FCC power to better regulate the cost of prison and jail phone and video calls to ensure that rates are just and reasonable.

Help People Who Are Incarcerated Ring in the New Year

Let’s protect families and children from the predatory prison telecom industry and help people who are incarcerated stay connected during the holidays — and all year long.