How the Prison Phone Industry Further Isolates Prisoners

When inmates are able to speak to friends and family while incarcerated, it not only improves their lives, but also, studies have shown, reduces recidivism after they leave prison. But to fill in budget holes or to make a profit, many state and local governments work with companies that put a high price tag on this basic need for the incarcerated.

A handful of companies monopolize the prison phone industry, and their control of the market allows them to charge exorbitant rates for inmate calls to their homes. States that contract with these providers tend to choose the contractor that provides not the lowest price, but the highest commission rate for the state. As a result, prisoners and their families may pay up to $1 per minute on a call.

In addition to the lucrative phone call industry, prison phone companies have begun to dabble in providing video visitation services, mostly to jails. Instead of meeting a prisoner in person, friends and families can chat with them over a platform similar to Skype. Offsite video visitation with inmates at the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center in Louisiana costs approximately $13 for a 20-minute video session—if “visitors” travel to the jail, the screen time is free. And these “visits” have become the only way inmates can see their “visitors,” since in-person visits were eliminated at the jail.

The shift to high-dollar video has become increasingly common. Until recently, one company even mandated banning in-person visits in their contracts. By 2015, 74 percent of jails using video visitation software had ended in-person visits—ending prisoners’ in-person interaction with friends and family.

Video visitation is a relatively new phenomenon, but advocates have been fighting to reduce expensive phone fees for decades. Four years ago, the Federal Communications Commission responded. Since 2013, the agency has attempted to place caps on prison and jail phone prices: The most recent rules would have…

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