Jail Inmates Exploited by Phone Service Providers and Hidden Fees: Study

Print More

Photo by Martin Abegglen via Flickr

Phone service providers are exploiting the weaknesses of local jails to charge exorbitant rates to inmates and their families, according to a Prison Policy Initiative study.

The costs of phone services has been dramatically lowered in state prisons as a result of lobbying by prison advocacy groups and caps imposed by the Federal Communications Commission, but calls from jails are now three times more expensive, averaging around $5.61 for a 15-minute call, said the study.

Citing Illinois jails as an example, the study found that a 15-minute phone call costs $7—some 52 times more than the cost of a similar call from Illinois state prisons.


Table courtesy Prison Policy Initiative

A call from a Michigan jail costs an average $12, but can reach as high as $22 for a 15-minute call, compared to $2.40 from the state’s prison system.

“Local jails are not significantly more expensive to serve than state prisons,” the study said. “Rather, phone providers have learned how to take advantage of the inherent weaknesses in how local jails, as opposed to state prisons, approach contracting.

“The result is that jails sign contracts with high rates that are particularly profitable for the providers.”

The study listed several reasons why jails are more “vulnerable to signing badf contracts,” including:

  • ·       Jails are smaller and have a harder time negotiated sophisiticated telecommunications contracts;
  • ·       Local governments rarely think in the long-term in negotiating contracts, since most are run by elected officials who concentrate on the next election;
  • ·       Since most jail inmates are booked for short-term periods, often awaiting trial and make few calls, sustained political pressure from families on jail administrators is unlikely.

Fees for services like Instagram are similarly subject to exploitation in jail populations, the study said.

While the FCC has scored huge progress in capping high fees—for example limiting fees charged for a credit card purchase has saved an estimated $48 million a year—jail populations are vulnerable to gouging tactics used by third-party payments systems.

Since many jail incarcerees live below or close to the poverty level, few have bank accounts, forcing them to pay bills by money transfer using services like WesternUnion or MoneyGram.

While the larger services charge standard prices of about $6 to send a $25 payment, some companies can charges as much as $10 or $12, the study said.

The study called on authorities to address a pattern of practices that result in further impoverishment of inmates and their relatives who are already struggling to make ends meet.

“Charging pretrial defendants high prices for phone calls punishes people who are legally innocent, drives up costs for their appointed counsel, and makes it hardoero for them to contact family members and others who might help them vost bail or build their defense.”

The study was written by Peter Wagner and Alexi Jones.

A full version is available here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *