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USA: the push to rein in the $1.2bn prison phone industry

Tory Brito spends hundreds of dollars every month on phone calls just to speak with her husband, who is currently imprisoned at a state prison in Waupun, Wisconsin.

Brito works two jobs to make ends meet and struggles to maintain the huge amount of funds required to call her husband in prison on a regular basis, even though such phone calls are vital for their relationship and his morale.

She is one of millions of family members of people in prisons and jails across the United States who fund the $1.2bn prison phone industry, an industry that prison reform advocates have been trying – and failing – to fix for years and that the Federal Communications Commission head, Mignon Clyburne, called “the greatest, most distressing, type of injustice I have ever seen in the communications sector”.

Two companies, Securus and GTL, control more than 70% of the market for prison calls. These companies have won contracts across the US by awarding kickbacks and commissions to jail and prison facilities, and boosted profits by adding consumer fees and including extra services into phone contracts.

Prison reform advocates are now pushing for legislation to make phone calls free for prisoners or significantly lower and cap the high rates and fees charged by prison phone corporations.

New York City and San Francisco made phone calls from local jails free this year, the first major cities in the US to do so. Statewide bills to make phone calls in prisons and jails free have been proposed in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

But progress at the federal level to reduce prison phone call rates were rolled back under the Trump administration as the FCC commissioner, Ajit Pai, directed FCC lawyers to stop defending caps on call rates approved by the agency in 2015 under Obama from a legal challenge filed by the prison phone industry.

Drained by undisclosed fees

Prisons and jails throughout the US continue to charge exorbitant rates and fees for family members to speak with loved ones in prisons and jails.

Allison McAllister’s fiance is being held at a state prison in at New Lisbon, Wisconsin, and struggles with similar issues.

“Initially they told us it was going to be a decreased rate to six cents a minute. What they didn’t tell us and we didn’t find out until they completed the switch, is ICS is charging taxes and fees they never disclosed to us. They’re very evasive. It’s not something they ever disclosed,” said McAllister.

Wisconsin department of corrections declined to provide the costs of the taxes and fees. ICSolutions did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“The majority of inmates are able to call individuals if they have funds available in the new system, and if the called party accepts the phone call,” said a spokesperson for WDOC in an email to the Guardian. “Family and friends are not required to have an account with the new system, unless they wish to accept collect calls. The new phone system allows inmates to fund their own calling account to make outgoing calls. Money will no longer be sent out to family and friends for calling accounts.”

McAllister spends at least $100 a month to speak to her husband by phone and up to 60% of the money she sends to her husband’s prison account is automatically deducted for restitution fees.

“I work a full-time job and it’s very tough to make all the ends meet, my own bills, rent, and make sure he has everything he needs,” added McAllister. “Sometimes I come home and I’m a wreck because I don’t know how I’m going to make it from one paycheck to the next. We’re out here trying to live our lives, support our family, and maybe put a little something away for our loved one’s future and all these fees and costs, they add up. It’s crazy.”

Wisconsin’s jails and prisons charge among some of the highest phone rates in the US. A national survey published in February 2019 by the Prison Policy Initiative found that, in 2018, the highest cost of a 15-minute in-state jail phone call in Wisconsin was $21.97 (£17.12), the third most expensive rate in the country. The average cost of an in-state jail 15-minute phone call in Wisconsin was $7.99 (£6.23), the sixth-highest in the US. These rates are often compounded with extra fees for family members to open and maintain accounts.

“The burden placed on families is outrageous and cruel that folks are having to pay this amount of money to speak with their loved ones in order to maintain contact with their family,” said Sean Wilson, a statewide organizer with ACLU-Wisconsin who spent 17 years in Wisconsin’s prison system.

‘Our situation is being exploited’

In Missouri, a 15-minute phone call from a jail can cost over $20, and these costs are part of difficult conditions reported at St Louis medium security institution, referred to as the Workhouse, that activists have been pushing to have closed down.

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