The First Call Is Free; the Rest Are a Fortune: Pressure mounts for prisons to improve their outdated and costly phone systems
aying a $4.25 connection fee and then 75 cents per minute thereafter seems costly, unless, perhaps, we’re talking about a phone call from our future Mars colony back to Earth. It is, though, what an operator at the phone company Global Tel*Link says it costs for a call from Pennsylvania’s Carbon County Correctional Facility to anywhere beyond the local calling area. That’s in line with the rates other companies charge for prisoners around the country to make simple long-distance phone calls. To compare, prepaid cell phones on the outside top out at about 20 cents a minute, and a standard residential landline plan at just half that.
If you find it difficult to rally sympathy for prisoners’ hefty monthly phone bills, consider two things. First, we know that contact with the outside world while in prison is tied to better outcomes after prison. Second, those costs are generally borne by families and friends, either through collect charges or the refilling of debit accounts, what the Center for Constitutional Rights’ Annette Dickerson calls “a transfer of punishment.” More than a decade ago, a Washington, D.C., grandmother named Martha Wright protested the high cost of taking calls from her grandson, who had been relocated from Virginia’s now-shuttered Lorton facility, a short Metrobus ride away, to Ohio, then New Mexico, and finally Arizona. A class-action suit followed. In 2001, the federal district judge on the case deferred to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and that’s where the Wright petition has sat since.
A report released last week from Massachusetts’s Prison Policy Initiative called The Price to Call Home dissects how a 20-minute call from Carbon County Correctional ends up costing 20 bucks. States sign exclusive prison contracts with phone companies, leaving few options for the support network of prisoners far from home who want to stay in contact without traveling long distances. It also means that while prisoners’ outside contacts are responsible for paying for calls, the real customers are states and their prison systems. (It’s one reason, perhaps, that prison chat boards are full of complaints about poor customer service and dropped calls.)