USA: a prison phone giant’s ploy to further exploit inmates

hen Lawrence Bartley was incarcerated, phone calls back home came at a shocking sticker price. Over the course of his 27-year sentence, his wife would sometimes pay as much as $400 a month to speak with him.

The market for prison phone services is captive in both an economic and literal sense—inmates who want to stay in touch with the outside world are forced to use whatever phone service provider their prison has a contract with. So, these companies can get away with charging inmates and their families—who are disproportionately low-income—as much as $14 per minute.

That rate may soon increase if the FCC allows Securus Technologies, one of the largest companies in the industry, to buy a smaller competitor. If the merger is approved, Securus and another corporation, GTL, will control around 80 percent of the market, according to calculations by the Prison Policy Initiative. Accordingly, Securus—which has a reputation for price-gouging inmates—would become larger and even more powerful.

The exorbitant rates paid by Bartley and others are partially explained by the whacked-out incentives built into the market. Inmates, or more often their families, are the ones who pay for the calls, but statewide prison systems choose the provider and negotiate the rates. Prisons and jails have an incentive to keep rates high because the companies give them kickbacks. “Securus might say ‘if you give us the contract, we will give you 80 percent back on the phone call,’” said Aleks Kajstura, the Prison Policy Institute’s legal director.

If the FCC allows the merger to proceed, prisons and jails will have essentially have just two options for phone service providers. For prisons and jails that do want to lower costs for families—and there are some, like New York City, which just passed legislation to make all inmate calls free—the near-duopoly would make it more difficult to negotiate contracts with reasonable rates.

It’s not just the cost-per-minute of phone calls that families like Bartley’s have to worry about—Securus and its competitors often charge steep fees every step along the way, from setting up accounts to depositing money. One such example is the “stamps” that Securus requires inmates to buy in order to send emails. “They actually charge for [email] stamps based on how many characters you send, as if the thing weighed more,” said Bianca Tylek of the Corrections Accountability Project. Tacking on fees is one way for the phone service companies to recoup some of the revenue they lose from giving a large cut of the money they earn on phone calls back to the prison.

Expensive phone calls for inmates can have ripple effects. Since in-person visits are onerous—most inmates are housed more than 100 miles away from their families—phone calls are an important way for incarcerated people to maintain their relationships. A 2014 study of 225 incarcerated women found that those who spoke on the phone with their family were far less likely to be back in prison five years after their release.

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