New study urges cheaper communications for incarcerated people

A new national study highlights the high cost of phone calls for people incarcerated in state prison systems. Image: Adobe Stock

People who make phone calls from state prisons and local jails often get price-gouged, with recent reforms falling short in preventing telephone companies from exploiting incarcerated people, a new national study found.

As the cost of calls approaches zero outside the prison walls, incarcerated people are forced to pay charges few can afford, threatening their access to one of the most effective tools for rehabilitation and harmony behind bars — a connection to the outside, the Prison Policy Initiative found in a study released this month.

New Jersey came out on top of most other states in the study, with jails charging up to 11 cents a minute for in-state calls (and 21 cents a minute out of state). Only California and Rhode Island’s in-state rates were cheaper, at 7 and 9 cents, respectively, while Michigan was the most expensive, at $1.05 a minute. With jail charges as high as 50 cents a minute for in-state calls, North Carolina had among the higher rates.

Still, places like Dallas and Travis counties in Texas and San Mateo County in California charge just 1 to 2 cents a minute, proving the possibility of much lower phone rates, according to the study’s authors, Peter Wagner and Wanda Bertram. They also found that local jails typically charge more than state prisons.

A 15-minute phone call in the average New Jersey jail costs $1.05, Bertram said.

“While that might not sound like much, the costs add up: Regular calls with an incarcerated loved one over several months can easily add up to thousands of dollars, a cost that pushes many families nationally into debt,” she said.

That $1.05 is also more than an entire day’s pay for some incarcerated people in New Jersey, who get puny paychecks for the jobs they work behind bars. New Jersey state prisons typically pay incarcerated people $1 to $3 a day, with a few jobs paying up to $7 daily — wages that haven’t risen in decades.

North Carolina came out near the bottom of states whose prisons and jails charge incarcerated people for telephone calls, a new study by the Prison Policy Initiative found. (Graphic courtesy of Prison Policy Initiative)

The Federal Communications Commission has made calls more affordable for incarcerated people in recent years through reforms like banning many fees associated with prepaid phone accounts and capping the costs of out-of-state calls from prisons and jails.

Some states have adopted other reforms. In New Jersey, legislators barred state prisons, local jails, and private correctional facilities from taking commissions from telecom providers or imposing surcharges for incarcerated people’s telephone usage.

But as consumer protections grow, some telecom companies are evolving to add unregulated products, like video calling and electronic messaging, at unreasonable prices, according to the study.

The study’s authors call on Congress to pass a bill that would authorize the FCC to set “just and reasonable rates” for all calls made from correctional facilities. They also urge the FCC to regulate the cost of video calling from prisons and jails, which they described as “arbitrary and exploitative.”

Examining and improving incarcerated people’s access to their loved ones is one of the issues Terry Schuster, New Jersey’s corrections ombudsperson, identified as one of his top priorities in the coming year.

Phone and video calls with family can be the “special sauce” that keeps incarcerated people from reoffending, and so their cost should reflect that, Schuster said.

“Success or failure for those coming home from prison often turns on whether they have meaningful support from friends and family,” he told the New Jersey Monitor. “If we want them to have that support, we have to treat phone calls home as a lifeline.”

Amy Z. Quinn, a New Jersey Department of Corrections spokeswoman, said that’s a priority for the state too.

People in state prisons pay 4.8 cents per minute for calls, and the department also recently cut the cost of money transfers, she said. Besides telephone calls, incarcerated people can use JPAY, which allows them to send and receive emails and video messages — at additional cost — through a tablet and kiosk system inside prisons, Quinn added.

Telephone services are competitively bid by outside vendors, Quinn said, adding that the current contracted provider is Global Tel Link.

That company, now known as ViaPath Technologies, holds the largest market share of the prison communications industry, serving just over 30% of all incarcerated people in U.S. prisons and jails, according to the Prison Policy Initiative report.

It recently agreed to refund millions of dollars to incarcerated people to settle a class-action lawsuit related to $121 million the company seized from users’ prepaid accounts it deemed inactive, according to Protocol, a technology and public policy news site.

Dana Difilippo is a reporter for the New Jersey Monitor, which first published this report.

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New study urges cheaper communications for incarcerated people