The High Cost of Prison Phone Calls is Driving People to Debt

Demeter Delune

Remaining in communication with friends and loved ones is something most of us take for granted. For those who are incarcerated, it becomes the only lifeline they have to the outside world in a lot of cases. But it's expensive and prohibitively so for a lot of the prison population. And when it becomes a matter of the state making money off your phone calls, it gets even more expensive. Affordable phone calls are directly related to the safety and well-being of all communities because communication reduces the likelihood that incarcerated people will commit another offense after their release. This uncontroversial proposition has been endorsed by Congress, the American Bar Association, the American Correctional Association, the federal Bureau of Prisons, state legislatures, and state regulatory agencies. Unfortunately, opportunities for government and private profit from prison telephone calls are clouding out this common-sense principle, and communities are suffering to fill the phone industry’s coffers.

Fees for prison money transfers are really high. In most states, there is a monopoly when it comes to prison telephone services as well, so you can't price shop. Even the companies that will accept money orders instead of making a deposit online aren't helping. It takes a lot longer for money orders to be processed than an instant online payment, and most don't guarantee it will happen. It's clear they're more interested in making money than providing a service.

There is no reasonable explanation why prison money transfers are so much more expensive than regular “free world” services like Venmo. People are accustomed to digitally sending or receiving money from friends and family at little or no cost. Looking at 33 state prison systems where fee information was available, you'll find rates ranging from 5% to 37% for online transfers. The average fee is 19% for a $20 online transfer, with a slight decline for higher-dollar transfers (the average fee for a $50 transfer is 12%). Fees for phone or in-person payments (options more likely to appeal to low-income people without a bank account) were generally higher than for online payments.

Three companies dominate the correctional money-transfer market in prisons; JPay (a Securus subsidiary that was recently fined $6 million for improper practices in its release-card business), Global*Tel Link (which sometimes uses the tradename “Touchpay”), and Access Corrections. Prisons like to give monopoly contracts for things like phone service or operating the commissary. Administrators often cite security concerns as a justification for using only one company as a contractor. But this doesn’t seem to be the case when it comes to money transfers, even though a brief review of corrections-department webpages reveals that prison officials have plenty of security concerns about money transfers. It’s telling that when it comes to facilitating the flow of money into prison, many corrections departments are suddenly open to competition.

Specifically, prison officials tend to spend a lot of time worrying about laundered or otherwise illegitimate money being sent to incarcerated people. It’s not that these concerns are never valid, but we do wonder how prevalent the problem actually is. Since 2019 in North Carolina, inmates can call anyone who puts money on their account or enables a pre-paid account, however, they're only allowed deposits to their commissary accounts from those on their approved visitor's list. This is supposedly in an effort to stop money laundering or payment for crimes, yet, it feels forced.

Having the ability to communicate with your loved ones feels priceless, but when calls are costing as much as $15 each in some areas, it has a heavy price. Low income families, which make up the majority when it comes to this situation can't afford this high cost, but they're bearing the burden of it anyway. It's time for competition within this market and time for prisons to stop profiting from the suffering of others.

Resources:

1. Please Deposit All Your Money-Prison Policy dot org. Accessed 11/15/2021

2. Fees Consume 38 percent of funds-Prison Policy dot org. Accessed 11/15/2021

3. The price to call home: state-sanctioned monopolization in the prison phone industry-Prison Policy dot org. Accessed 11/16/2021

4. CFPB Penalizes JPay for Siphoning Taxpayer-Funded Benefits Intended to Help People Re-enter Society After Incarceration-CFPB. Accessed 11/18/2021

5. NC DPS- Send Money to an Offender-NC DPS. Accessed 11/18/2021

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Relationship and Intimacy Coach who loves to bring folks good news and fun facts to help them brighten their day and inform.

Myrtle Beach, SC
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