April 13, 2011 by Bruce Reilly Unprison.wordpress
Nationwide Research Finds Excessive Prison Phone Rates Exploit Prisoners’ Families
Brattleboro, VT – Prison Legal News (PLN), a monthly publication that covers
criminal justice-related issues, released a report this past weekend at the National
Conference for Media Reform in Boston that examines prison phone rates nationwide.
The report, based on several years of research that included submitting public
records requests in all 50 states, found that prison phone companies routinely
provide kickbacks – euphemistically known as “commissions” – to contracting
government agencies, based on a percentage of the revenue earned from prisoners’
These kickbacks, which average 42% of gross revenue, generated over $152 million
nationwide in 2007-2008. Since the vast majority of prisoners’ phone calls are paid
by their families, either by accepting collect calls or by funding pre-paid or debit
accounts, most of the kickback money comes from prisoners’ family members.
“This has been a major concern for prisoners’ families, who are unfairly exploited
by telephone companies and the government agencies that receive kickbacks from those
companies,” said PLN associate editor Alex Friedmann. “This is an issue of
PLN found that 42 states accept kickback commissions from prison phone companies,
which include Unisys, Securus and Global Tel*Link (partly owned by investment
banking firm Goldman Sachs). In some cases the commissions exceed 60% of prison
According to the report, “prison phone companies don’t ‘compete’ in the usual sense.
They don’t have to offer lower phone rates to match those of their competitors, as
prison phone contracts typically are based on the highest commission paid, not the
lowest phone rates. Free market com-petition is thus largely absent in the prison
phone industry, at least from the perspective of the consumer – mainly prisoners’
The report notes that prison phone rates are arbitrary, with high rates in some
states and lower rates in others, which “simply cannot be correlated to providing
the same basic telephone service.” Prison phone rates fluctuate widely within the
same state and among different states, even when the phone services are provided by
the same company.
Colorado has the highest prison phone rate for local calls, at $2.75 + $.23/minute
($6.20 for a 15-minute local collect call). The highest intrastate phone rate is
charged in Oregon, at $3.95 + $.69/ minute ($14.30 for a 15-minute collect call).
Washington has the highest interstate rate: $4.95 + $.89/minute, or $18.30 for a
15-minute long distance collect call.
Eight states do not accept kickback commissions – Nebraska, New Mexico, New York,
Rhode Island, Michigan, South Carolina, Missouri and California (as of 2011). New
Hampshire, Kansas and Arkansas have reduced their kickback commissions, while
Montana entered into a limited-commission contract in 2010.
Notably, PLN’s research provides “a before-and-after look at phone rates in several
states that have banned, limited or reduced their kickback commissions.” When states
forgo commissions, their phone rates drop significantly. For example, prison phone
rates in New York dropped almost 69% when the state banned commission payments in
2008. In California, which finished phasing out prison phone kickbacks earlier this
year, the rates declined by 61%. Prison phone rates decreased by 64.5% in Montana
and 40% in Kansas after those states adopted lower commissions.
Thus, prison phone companies are able to offer lower rates but for having to pay
kickbacks to the contracting government agencies. “This is gross profiteering at its
worst,” noted PLN editor Paul Wright. “State officials are lining their pockets, to
the tune of tens of millions of dollars, by fleecing prisoners’ families with
exorbitant phone rates. Why? Simply because they can.”
The report notes that “there is a widely-known and researched correlation between
prisoners who maintain contact with their families and those who are successful in
staying out of prison after they are released,” which reduces recidivism. However,
most states continue to accept kickbacks “at the expense of facilitating more
affordable phone calls for prisoners and their families, and in spite of the
societal benefits that would inure from lower phone rates.”
A rulemaking petition to regulate prison phone rates on the interstate level is
pending before the FCC, but the FCC has taken no action on the petition since it was
filed in 2003.
In conjunction with Thousand Kites, Prison Legal News has opened a phone line for
members of the public to share their stories about excessive prison phone costs. The
toll-free number, available 24/7, is 877-518-0606. Recorded stories can be heard
Prison Legal News (PLN) is a project of the Human Rights Defense Center. HRDC,
founded in 1990 and based in Brattleboro, Vermont, is a non-profit organization
dedicated to protecting human rights in U.S. detention facilities. HRDC publishes
PLN, a monthly magazine that includes reports, reviews and analysis of court rulings
and news related to prisoners’ rights and criminal justice issues. PLN has almost
7,000 subscribers nationwide and operates a website (www.prisonlegalnews.org) that
includes a comprehensive database of prison and jail-related articles, news reports,
court rulings, verdicts, settlements and related documents.
For further information, please contact:
Prison Legal News, Editor
P.O. Box 2420
5331 Mt. View Rd. #130
West Brattleboro, VT 05303
(802) 257-1342 or (802) 275-8594
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