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The Cost of Calling Incarcerated Loved Ones

Written by: Rebecca Mohr, BSW Intern


What should it cost to call your family member in jail? We say zero cents but, the prison industrial complex charges families who want to stay in contact with incarcerated loved ones. Phone and communication services are just one part of the larger prison industrial complex that economically exploits incarcerated populations. The highest call rates in America are found in jails, prisons, and detention facilities, where communication services are contracted out to private providers. These contracts function under a commission model, where approximately 40% of call charges go towards the service provider and 60% is “kicked-back” to the carceral facility (government or private corporation) as a $152 Million nationwide commission or revenue source for facilities’ operating costs. What’s more, roughly 80% of communication services in correctional facilities are monopolized by just two corporations, Securus and ViaPath (GTL), whose revenue from the correctional telecom industry adds up to $1.4 Billion annually! In all states, phone calls are multifold more expensive from jail than they are in prisons, and in-state than they are from out-of-state. In New Jersey prisons since 2014: a 30-minute phone call costs $1.20, a video call costs $9.95, and even email costs 35 cents per page! 

These rates have consequences on social/economic justice and public health; they disconnect families from incarcerated members and diminish support systems for all involved people.  Children who have an incarcerated parent fare worse psychologically and physically than children who experience the death of a parent, and black children are 7.5x and Latinos 2.5x more likely than white children to have an incarcerated parent. Further, expensive communication in the carceral system has forced one in three families to go into debt related to call costs. This perpetuates gender and racial inequities because 87% of those carrying this debt are black and Latina women who are the main contacts of incarcerated loved ones. 


Where does retribution for one’s crimes end, and the opportunity to rehabilitate begin? In April of 2024, the NJ Office of the Corrections Ombudsperson released a report, Visits and Phone Calls, with data from 4 NJ facilities. The report confirms that sustaining support systems and relationships during incarceration has a positive impact on a person’s behavior while in prison and their stability and success as a returning citizen. It was also found that the loss of phone calls increases feelings of isolation in incarcerated individuals and increases anxiety, panic, and mistrust of the Department of Corrections (DOC) for family members who stop hearing from their loved ones without explanation. Yet, disciplinary sanctions still regularly involve the loss of access to phone or video calls, email, and visitation, sometimes for months or years at a time. The article concludes by recommending the NJDOC revise its policies to place clearer limitations on when phone privileges can be taken away and for how long, being that they currently operate on a discretionary basis.

The report additionally commends the NJDOC for making progress in expanding communications access further through tablet-based options that are offered as a rental or sometimes for free. While this is positive news, its reality may still be concerning. Some but not all of these tablets are call-enabled, and they are mostly being marketed towards entertainment services (television, music, games), which makes more money for various corporations and contributes to the larger prison industrial complex.


Family-Centered Solutions

Led by incarcerated people, their families, and advocates from across the nation, the Connecting Families Coalition, sponsored by Worth Rises, is working to make communication free, reconnect justice-impacted families, and limit the extent to which communication is leveraged as a privilege. Several states and cities have responded with policies that ban commission-based contracting and/or implementing call rate caps, including New York City, Louisville, Miami, Connecticut, California, Colorado, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and others. In early January of 2023, President Biden signed the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act of 2022 into law, which mandates the Federal Communications Commissions to ensure charges for “any audio or video communications service used by inmates, regardless of technology used,” are just and reasonable. Such legislation has worked to decrease the cost of calls burdened to the incarcerated and their families, but only free calls can eliminate the exploitation they face. 

Recently, in New Jersey, legislation has been drafted to require phone and video calls made by incarcerated people at state and private correctional facilities to be serviced for free and to address incarcerated people’s accessibility to communications. Assembly Bill 1889 and Senate Bill 2390 are on the docket for the New Jersey Legislature Session 2024-2025. To get involved or for more information, please refer to the Connecting Families Coalition!

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