Civil Liberties

A Good Call

Prisoners pay the highest prices anywhere in the country to make life-saving phone calls. Now prison advocates are fighting to end special contracts and lower the cost of a call.
For inmates around the country, every opportunity to call friends and family is a mixed blessing. While phone calls provide a much-needed lifeline to the outside world, the exorbitant fees charged for collect calls by phone companies place a further burden on their loved ones.

But relief may soon be coming to relatives and friends of prisoners in North Carolina. State officials earlier this month requested proposals for a new phone contract in which vendors would provide inmates with the option of setting up debit accounts to pay for calls.

"The debit features that we have specified were based on the fact that we wanted to offer inmates and their families other options for paying for calls," says Patricia Deal, telecommunications manager for the state's Division of Prisons.

Under the current contract, inmates' friends and families can pay as much as 51 cents a minute, plus collect surcharges that can be as high as $2.25. For poor families and public defenders, the cumulative cost of collect call surcharges can quickly become a significant obstacle to staying in touch.

"For a decade it has been just a very serious problem for the families of inmates and for inmates themselves," says Michael Hamden, executive director of North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services. "The inmates have difficulty maintaining ties because it's ruinous to call repeatedly collect at these exorbitant rates, and the families are in the position of being extorted."

Despite repeated complaints from prisoner advocacy groups nationwide, reform has been difficult. Many prisons, both private and public, negotiate exclusive contracts with phone carriers and then take a percentage of revenue as commission. This gives prison officials an incentive to squeeze as much money out of the calls as they can. Prisoner rights advocates argue that this system of financing effectively amounts to subsidizing prison costs out of the pockets of the families of the imprisoned.

For families of inmates serving in private prisons, sometimes thousands of miles from home, the costs are even more onerous, given phone calls represent the only means of routinely staying in touch. In March, a number of prisoner advocacy groups filed a petition supporting an earlier request that the FCC stop private prisons from signing exclusive contracts, require open competition among multiple carriers and allow inmates to set up debit accounts to avoid the markup for collect calls.

North Carolina's prisons are public, and the state's Department of Corrections receives a commission on all collect calls originating from prisons. This netted the DOC about $5 million last year. Deal says reductions in phone revenue could imperil prison services such as education opportunities, indigent inmate funds, and religious and leisure activities. But she's hopeful that by giving prisoners the ability to pay through a debit account, more calls will be connected.

"It allows inmates to make calls [to people] that normally would not accept their calls because they can't afford to," she says, "so that could increase our revenue."

Christopher Hayes is a freelance writer based in Chicago.