The high toll of inmate phone calls

Advocates say charges keep prisoners isolated, undermine criminal justice reforms

IT’S EASY TO take ordinary conveniences like making a telephone call for granted. Advances in technology have made communication cheaper and higher quality than ever before. But one group has been excluded from enjoying the benefits of the falling cost of this modern amenity: inmates.

For years, inmates and their families across the nation have railed against exorbitant charges for placing phone calls from prison, which used to run as high as $10 per minute. What’s more, inmates say they sometimes pay hundreds of dollars a month for poor quality service, with bad connections and frequently dropped calls.

Years of litigation and advocacy pressure have made a dent in the costs. In 2013, the Federal Communications Commission capped charges for interstate calls from prisons at 25 cents per minute. In Massachusetts, the Department of Telecommunications and Cable has capped the rate for within-state calls at 10 cents per minute. But inmates face a set of additional fees for phone service that can still leave them and their families with hundreds of dollars of charges beyond the per-minute tariffs.

Advocates want to see the high cost of prisoner phone calls addressed as part of the broader push for criminal justice reform legislation now underway on Beacon Hill.

Prisoner phone services are provided by private companies that contract with the state Department of Correction and county houses of correction. Two companies handle all inmate calling services in Massachusetts, Global Tel Link and Securus Technologies. Global Tel Link has an exclusive contract with the Department of Corrections to handle all state prisoner calls as well as contracts with some county sheriffs, while Securus Technologies services the remaining county corrections facilities.

The companies pay the state and county facilities a percentage of their revenue in exchange for exclusive contracts. In fiscal year 2015, Global Tel Link paid more than $3.5 million to the state.

Making a phone call from a Massachusetts prison or county correctional facility is a complicated and costly undertaking. Inmates can be hit with a charge to set up an initial phone account, monthly account maintenance charges, and fees for subsequent deposits into the account. Advocates say inmates can also be assessed per-call surcharges of up to $3, levies that are applied each time a call connects, even if an inmate has to redial a number after a dropped call, and are sometimes charged for an attempted call that is not answered.

Elizabeth Matos, an attorney with Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, said the state and federal caps on per-minute fees were welcome news, but the huge surcharges and other fees mean inmates and their families have received little overall relief from the high cost of staying in touch. “The surcharges are really what gets people,” said Matos, whose organization has been battling for years to lower the high cost of inmate calling services.

Matos said the payments to the state and county corrections facilities from companies providing inmate phone services only compound the problem because the state and the facilities earn more if inmates are charged more.

The cost of inmate calls are not just a financial burden for inmates and their families, who are often struggling to make ends meet, say advocates. They are also making it harder for inmates to maintain contact with family members, something that Matos says is crucial to inmates’ stability while incarcerated and their chances of getting on track and not returning to prison after their release.

“Being able to maintain positive relationships is paramount to having a chance of success” on the outside, said Matos. “Maintaining ties with loved ones while incarcerated positively impacts reentry and lower recidivism rates.”

A 1972 study of inmates released from the California corrections system reported that maintaining family ties increased the rate of parole success, and claimed that “it might be well to view an inmate’s family as a prime treatment agent and family contacts as a major correctional technique.” A 2011 study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that prisoners who received visitors had a 13 percent lower rate of conviction on a new felony charge following their release.

When the FCC voted in 2013 to cap interstate calling rates for prison inmates, the acting chairwoman of the commission, Mignon Clyburn, pointed to the benefits of inmates having regular contact with those outside prison. “Studies have shown that having meaningful contact beyond prison walls can make a real difference in maintaining community ties, promoting rehabilitation, and reducing recidivism. Making these calls more affordable can facilitate all of these objectives and more,” Clyburn said in a statement at the time.

Sen. Will Brownsberger, cochairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary, said the issue of inmate calling charges should be on the criminal justice reform agenda. “I am convinced they are way too high, and I would like to see us limit them,” he said.

State Rep. Chynah Tyler, a Roxbury Democrat, has filed legislation that would prohibit the state and county corrections facilities from receiving commission payments from companies providing inmate phone services. Her bill would also require the Department of Correction and county houses of correction to negotiate phone service contracts that don’t include per-call surcharges, account set-up fees, or other similar add-ons.

“The communities that are most affected are low income and people of color,” Tyler said of the high cost of inmate phone services. “This is not a financial burden that should be falling on these families.”

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It’s unclear, however, how companies could structure calling services for inmates that only include per-minute charges that are limited by the recent caps put on those rates.

A spokesman for the Department of Correction said the agency did not have a position on the bill. Global Tel Link and Securus Technologies did not respond to an inquiry seeking comment.