The FCC has announced that it is capping the cost of in-state calls to prisoners

The Federal Communication Commission has just announced that it is capping rates on prison phone calls within states as well as between them. Now, in most cases, they will cost no more than $1.65 for a 15-minute phone call. FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn has spoken of the “incredible burden” that costly phone calls placed on the families of the 2 million prisoners held in the U.S.

She’s right, but unfortunately overpriced phone calls are just one way in which invisible public policies milk the mothers, grandmothers, sisters, fathers, brothers and loved ones of prisoners for money. We talk about this in an article in the current issue of Perspectives on Politics, parts of which we summarize here.

Prison phone calls are shockingly expensive

As Clyburn says, prisoners’ families face an enormous burden just to stay in contact with their loved ones. Families can easily spend between $1,000 and $2,000 a year. In one ethnographic study, the mother of a prisoner spent 20 percent of her total income just to be able to talk to her son on the phone. Why are prison phone calls so expensive? Because they make a lot of money for private businesses and for states.

In almost all states, phone calls must be made collect or are paid for by money deposited by family members in prisoner accounts. State departments of corrections contract with phone companies that generally pay the Department a commission (or, as some might have it, a kickback). A comprehensive study by Prison Legal News calculated the national figure for commissions at 42 percent, documenting both the often-exorbitant phone rates charged to families and the lack of transparency in the bidding and contracting process. A recent report by the Prison Policy Initiative shows that several states receive double that commission. In Baldwin County, Alabama, ICSolutions agreed to pay 84.1 percent of profits back to the county.

In order to recoup these commissions, telephone companies often tack “hidden’ fees onto the publicly-announced telephone “rates.” The FCC’s new ruling is intended to limit these abuses. Unsurprisingly, it has upset companies whose business models are based on charging these fees, like Securus Technologies, whose CEO is threatening to organize a joint legal action against the FCC with other companies in the industry.

However, this is just one of many ways in which prisoners’ families are gouged

Phone calls are not the only way in which states and private businesses cooperate to make money from prisoners’ families. Prisoners need to buy basic supplies from prison commissaries. Even if they work in prison, they aren’t able to afford to pay themselves – they may earn as little as 2 cents an hour. This means that they need to rely on family members to send them money.

But again, it’s very expensive to buy goods or to send money or other supplies to prisoners. In Florida, commissary sales and other transactions are managed through Department of Corrections contracts with vendors, which are awarded to the businesses that will pay the highest commission to the state. For example, the Keefe Group’s 2013–2016 contract with the state’s Department of Corrections states that “the Department will make an award, by Region, to the responsive, responsible bidder submitting the highest percentage commission.” Another Keefe contract with Florida Department of Corrections stipulates that Keefe will pay the Department 20 cents for each downloaded piece of music, $5 for each “Securepak-Family/Friends package” that is sent to a prisoner, $1 for each earbud, and $2 for each armband. JPay manages many of the fee-required transactions in Tennessee Corrections and provides services to prisoner families under a profit-sharing contractual arrangement in which the vendor pays a commission to the Departments of Corrections.

Pat Taylor, a housekeeper, sent her son Eddie money every other week. Although she used to send a money order through the post office, the deposit system is now managed by JPay, whose reach currently includes money transfers to 70 percent of all U.S. inmates. To send Eddie $50 through JPay costs his mother $6.95. Depending on how much Pat Taylor can manage in any given week, the fee can be as high as 35 percent. In other states, JPay’s fees can reach 45 percent. JPay or other vendors pay commissions to the state which are used to help pay for the prison system, or just treated as general revenues.

JPay likes to keep its friends in the correctional system happy. At the 2012 convention of the American Correctional Association, JPay provided an all-night shuttle for conventioneers to a wine bar party that promised (on paper beer coasters), a “bash, JPay-style: fuerte tequila, hand-rolled cigars, a live mariachi band.”

In addition, prisoners who have ‘encumbrances’ and have to pay money for state fees or victim compensation fees may hardly be able to get money at all. Take a 2013 New York State court case, the People v. Cympethy Neal. At sentencing, Neal received a mandatory surcharge of $300, a DNA fee of $50, and a crime victim assistance fee of $25 ($375 in total). Neal sought to defer payment of the money owed under her sentence since she was only earning $6.00 every two weeks in prison wages. If family or friends were to send her money, the funds would be deducted up to 100 percent because of her several encumbrances. The deduction of Neal’s encumbrance(s) meant that she was left with 20 percent of her wages (e.g., 62 cents per week), which was insufficient to purchase necessary hygiene items from the Commissary and stamps for personal correspondence with her children. The Court held that Neal did not meet the necessary standard that would require her showing that she had suffered hardship “over and above the ordinary hardship suffered by other indigent inmates.”

Prisoners’ families often can’t visit them physically any more — and have to pay just to see them on a screen

Securus Technologies (the firm which is protesting the FCC rule) has made a lot of money from providing a different service – video-visitation for prisoners’ families. It has contracts in 2,600 correctional facilities. Advertised as a boon to families, video visitation presumably allows persons in prison to connect with their families from anywhere on the globe by live video. This “service,” however, is financed largely by poor families. Seventy percent of the contracts, according to one report, require that the video visitation replace in-person visitation. Indeed the family member in prison may be only one room away, but the family visitor is often barred by contract from actually making an in-person visit under this new video arrangement. In addition to the often significant financial costs incurred to visit their loved ones in prison, what was once free visitation now costs family members about a dollar per minute to utilize the new video system.

Families have to keep paying – even after prisoners have gotten out

Collection from fees imposed for parole and probation has been increasingly shifted to private companies. In many states, probation and parole can be revoked for those who fail to pay outstanding debt.
Forty-four states allow individuals to be charged fees for parole or probation supervision. Motor vehicle licenses and other trade licenses can be withdrawn and at the end of the line, the debtor can be incarcerated, in some cases paying down the debt with days of incarceration. Another recent development is the incarceration of individuals for civil, not criminal, debts owed not to the state, but to private parties. As is often the case, the financial burden falls on the family. As one private probation officer in Georgia explains, “I always try and negotiate with the families. Once they know you are serious they come up with some money . … They have to see that this person is not getting out unless they pay something.”

The political scientist Suzanne Mettler has written about the “submerged state” through which middle class people get social welfare benefits – without even realizing that they are getting welfare. The many ways in which state governments and private businesses work together to extract money from people who have family members in prison might be described as the dark twin of the submerged state.
Rather than being an invisible way for rich and middle class people to get social welfare benefits, it is an invisible way for the state to raise money from people who are already far more likely to be poor, and also more likely to be African-American than the general population. The predatory local government that we saw in Ferguson, Missouri is just one example of a much wider set of relationships that is mostly unknown to social scientists and middle class citizens alike.