The prison phone call industry doesn’t just cost prisoners, but also their families. Photo credit: iStock.
For inmates, phone calls are a service that can cost hundreds of dollars a month. In many states, five hours of phone calls can cost around $300 dollars — an amount that’s utterly unaffordable for many families. This price is especially inconceivable since most pay a tenth of that cost for unlimited calls in the non-incarcerated world.
Imprisonment serves to provide a bodily distance between those that officials convicted of crimes, and those on the outside. Jails and prisons are physical barriers that maintain a corporeal distance. To most people, this is the function of the entire concept of incarceration: to keep a distance between ‘criminals’ and ‘non-criminals.’
But, why is it also so difficult for those in prison or jail to communicate with those on the outside? Why are they deprived of free, or at least reasonably priced, communication?
Calls for Prisoners: A Cost-Prohibitive Service
For many prisoners and their friends and families, calling is a cost-prohibitive service. They can likely make calls. But the calls aren’t as frequent or as long as they’d like them to be. The average price for a 15-minute phone call in some states is $15, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. This means that one 15 minute call per day, or five calls a week (20 calls a month), would cost $300 dollars. That’s $300 for only five hours of phone calls. Which, not including potential visits or letters, calls are the prisoner’s only contact with those that they have relationships with in the non-incarcerated world.
To compare, some regular cell-phone companies offer plans around $20-$30 dollars per month, which includes unlimited calls, texting, and even internet access. This means that some Americans pay the same amount, for unlimited calls for 10 months, that a family member would pay for 20 calls to their loved one in jail or prison.
In addition to these fees, there are caps on the duration of phone-calls, normally between 10-15 minutes. There are also caps on the amount of minutes an inmate can have for a month (ordinarily around 300 minutes).
The American Action Forum reports that around 60% of inmates were impoverished prior to going to jail or prison. This makes the exorbitant price of phone calls even more of a burden.
The Prison Policy Initiative notes that the price of phone calls is one of the biggest hindrances preventing prisoners from contacting their family.
Letters are definitely a cheaper form of communication. But they aren’t as direct and constant as phone-calls. For example, an urgent letter won’t be promptly received and there is a potential that illiteracy among prisoners also makes letter writing difficult.
Phone Calls are Imperative for Prisoners
Prisoners rely on phone services to communicate with their loved ones. This simple service is their sole point of direct contact with the outside world. If an inmate has a complaint, or is having mental health issues, a phone call is the best way to dispatch that concern to those that care about them.
Beside this, phone calls offer support — an important factor when it comes to recidivism, or re-offending. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, maintaining contact with family members and friends contributes to a statistically lower recidivism rate.
Emerald spoke to Prison Policy Initiative representative who explained just how much calls mean to inmates and their families:
“For families that have a loved one in prison, not being able to communicate is devastating, just as it would be for any family. [Those that are incarcerated] lose their sense of hope in the future, their groundedness, and it wears away at their mental health. We know that communication is vital for families because they keep on paying the absurd costs companies charge them for phone calls, video calls, and emails, even though one in three with an incarcerated loved one goes into debt to pay these costs.”
“An Exchange of Energy:” the Immediacy of a Phone Call
Corvain Cooper, Chief Brand Ambassador with 40 Tons — a cannabis and clothing company whose mission is to help free 40,000+ cannabis prisoners — says phone calls are “[…] one of the most important things; it’s one of the only ways you can connect with the outer world. Besides visiting, I would say it’s number one. And [visiting] is hard to get if you’re out of state,” Cooper — who former President Trump notably granted clemency to — continues. “I think just being in touch with the person and getting to see what’s going on on the other side of the wall. [When one is on the phone] you’re not in jail anymore for those 10 minutes, you’re just talking.”
Emerald also spoke with 40 Tons Operations Director and Co-founder, Anthony Alegrete. Alegrete explains that “it’s also an exchange of energy. It’s an exchange of energy and so you get all hyped up. You know you need to speak 1,000 miles a minute ’cause there’s only 10 minutes to talk.”
For both Cooper and Alegete — who officials incarcerated for cannabis crimes — the phone is distinct from other modes of communication. That’s because it’s immediate and allows the inmate to (temporarily) transcend the walls of the prison.
They both also agreed that while they were in prison, they spent hundreds of dollars, monthly, on phone calls.
A “State Sanctioned” Monopoly
Phone calls are so expensive for prisoners because state prisons and jails have contracts with private providers. Each jail and prison has its own personal phone provider monopoly with no alternatives.
The three largest prison phone companies are contracted in the state prisons and jails where 90% of inmates in the U.S. are incarcerated, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This means that 90% of prisoners in the U.S. and their families must use these three phone companies.
As a result, the Prison Policy Initiative calls the prison phone industry a “state sanctioned monopolization” in its report on the issue.
The customers (either inmates or those that wish to contact them) can’t choose which phone service to use. Instead they must pay the amount that the private phone provider determines.
This lack of choice renders the consumer reliant on the predetermined contract that the phone company makes with the state. These contracts frequently include large kickbacks — under the guise of ‘fees’— added onto the price of the call that is then directly paid to the jail or prison.
How 40 Tons Intervenes in the Prison Phone Industry
40 Tons sells t-shirts and other accessories (such as face masks), with the picture of specific inmates that officials incarcerated for nonviolent cannabis-related charges. They give the proceeds of these t-shirts are directly to the inmates themselves through their prison account. Since phone calls are one of the biggest expenses for inmates, much of this money is likely spent on them.
Post from @40tonsbrand on Instagram.
Cooper further explained how 40 Tons’s model helps those that are incarcerated:
“We use our brand with our platform to build awareness but to also build their bank accounts. It’s like they have their own business in jail. They learn how to promote themselves, how to run a business, it also shows him how much an item costs. [This model] shows them how to save their money so that when they get out they can start their own. Cause when you come out the gates you don’t have nothing out here.”
40 Tons joins others on a similar mission to release and support prisoners. For example, the Last Prisoner Project also helps raise funds for commissary and phone calls, in addition raising awareness about the importance of communication for inmates
Post from @LastPrisonerProject
Through these efforts, 40 Tons and others are materially helping these inmates who officials incarcerated for nonviolent cannabis crimes. This is undeniably helpful for those inmates. However, government regulation of the prison phone industry could prevent inmates from relying on private companies to help pay their exorbitant phone bills. Because ultimately, their phone bills shouldn’t be exorbitant in the first place.