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Summary

  • People in prisons and jails pay extremely high rates to stay in contact with their family in many parts of the country. 32 states had an average cost for a 15 minute phone call from a county jail of more than $5, and only 2 states had a cost less than $2.
  • Families spend $1.4 billion a year on calls. 
  • Around 10 million people in the US are affected by poor prison and jail communication systems: ~2 million incarcerated, ~6 million spouses and parents, ~3 million children.
  • The effect on families is large. One in three families with an incarcerated parent go into debt to pay for prison communication.
  • Solutions are surprisingly reasonably priced, when areas have uptake. Ameelio (a non-profit working in this area) estimates deployment costs at ~$500k per state. Considering a current estimate of the prison telecom industry making $1.4b a year in profit, a comparatively very small amount of money here could have huge effects on millions of Americans.

Importance

People in prisons and jails pay extremely high rates to stay in contact with their family in many parts of the country. 32 states had an average cost for a 15 minute phone call from a county jail of more than $5, and only 2 states had a cost less than $2, according to the latest data from Prison Policy Initiative.

In addition, federal prisoners are paid sub-minimum-wage rates: $0.12 - $0.40 for jobs paid by the prison system, $0.23 - $1.15 for jobs for companies outside of the prison system. This can mean that people in prison pay their entire day’s wages for a 15 minute phone call!

In aggregate, families pay $1.4 billion a year, according to Business Insider.

There are three main constituencies that are affected by the high cost of prison communications: incarcerated people, their adult support network, and their children.

Note that I will not attempt DALY estimates here, because it’s not clear of a principled way to estimate them. There are good estimates on the population sizes (which I have included) and I also speak to some of the effects on those populations.

Incarcerated People

1.9 million people are currently in prison or jail in the US in 2022, according to the Prison Policy Initiative

Numerous studies suggest that closer contact with family and outside support networks reduces rates of recidivism or violating parole. Communication with family members also makes the experience more tolerable.

Parents and Spouses

6.5 million adults have an immediate family member currently in jail or prison, according to the Equal Justice Initiative

They are also the ones who most directly bear the high cost of communication. “The high cost of maintaining contact with incarcerated family members led more than one in three families (34%) into debt to pay for phone calls and visits alone,” according to the Ella Baker Center.

Children

2.7 million children currently have an incarcerated parent, according to the Urban Institute

Phone calls, and other virtual communication methods, are essential for keeping in touch with an absent parent. “Over half of parents in state prisons (59%) and just under half (45%) of parents in federal prisons did not have any personal visits with their minor children while in prison in 2004,” reported The Sentencing Project based on data from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics

Neglectedness

(Note: some material in this section is from the policy paper “Improving Outcomes for Incarcerated People by Reducing Unjust Communication Costs” that I previously published with the Day One Project.)

This is a particularly interesting angle for this problem. Prison telecommunication is publicly bid on, and the cost of equivalent services outside of correctional facilities is free or nearly free. Why is this market so disregulated?

There are substantial kickbacks (called “site commissions”), where a large percentage of the per-minute rates are paid to the facilities for the right to the contract. A typical rate is 50%, and these can run as high as 96%. Given they get a percentage of every dollar spent, the facilities also have an incentive to keep costs high to increase their revenue, not to give the end consumer the lowest cost of connection.

In addition, there are two major prison telecom companies, Securus and Global Tel*Link, which cover 94% of the largest jails in the United States and 95% of the prison systems of the largest states in the United States. Although they do bid against each other on individual contracts, they are not racing to the bottom in terms of prices they charge incarcerated people and their families.

So, market pressures will push costs up and up unless they’re regulated, but there is no governing body with the authority to cap rates.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 gives the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) the authority to regulate communications in prisons and jails, in a section named “PROVISION OF PAYPHONE SERVICE”. Since the act was never revised, the FCC tried to act on its own to expand to other ways that people communicate from prison. The FCC proposed rate caps for both video calls and site commissions on traditional telephone calls starting in 2015, but in 2017, the DC circuit court ruled that both were not covered by the law: the FCC can’t regulate video calls (which aren’t mentioned in the Telecommunications Act) or site commissions (due to a provision that every call be “fully compensated”).

Who is working on this problem?

I want to highlight 3 groups attacking this problem using different methods.

Ameelio - non-profit deployment

Ameelio is a tech nonprofit dedicated to “Transforming America’s correctional system with technology”. They have several products, including a service to send letters and postcards to incarcerated people as well as Connect, which is a video calling service. I am not aware of any other non-profits bidding on prison and jail communication contracts, and FCC data confirms that no other non-profits have won a communication contract.

Worth Rises - advocacy

Worth Rises is an advocacy group focused on “dismantling the prison industry and ending the exploitation of those it targets”. Over the past few years, they forced the resignation of Tom Gores, the private equity owner of one of the large prison telecoms, from LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) and were instrumental in getting free prison phone calls in Miami, Connecticut, and Los Angeles. They are the largest group of their type, though there are other groups working in this area such as the United Church of Christ Media Justice Ministry.

Prison Policy Initiative - data

Prison Policy Initiative is a think tank that “​​uses research, advocacy, and organizing to show how over-criminalization harms individuals, our communities, and the national well-being.” They have collected incredible data on the cost of phone calls, the cost of video calls, the cost of e-mails and the overall size of the prison and jail population in the US, and their data is regularly referred to in mass media on prison and jails.

Tractability

In my opinion, this is a tractable problem by scaling up some of the existing operations. When you look at either the work of bidding on county jails or the advocacy work of convincing cities and states to make phone calls free, they’ve been effective in the locations that they’ve reached so far, but they are only reaching a tiny fraction of the locations that they need.

It’s hard to find exact estimates on costs, but in Ameelio’s application to the Elevate Prize, they estimate $500k per state that they’re bidding on “to acquire the necessary hardware and support our infrastructure for free communication.” Considering a current estimate of the prison telecom industry making $1.4b a year in profit, a comparatively very small amount of money here could have huge effects on millions of Americans.

Something that particularly drew me to this cause is this feeling of technology and policy as arbitrage. As you’ll see below, by changing the structure of who is providing service and how, this can save governments and families money. 

Case Study - New York City

In 2019, New York City started providing free phone calls from its city jail, with the money coming from the City’s budget. Material below is reprinted from Worth Rises, who strongly advocated for the change.

  • Prior to the change, New York City families were paying $0.50 for the first minute and $0.05 per minute after that for instate calls with incarcerated loved ones. Securus, its telecom provider, was paying the City an 81% commission on instate calls, which amounted to $5 million per year. Securus took home another $2.9 million on calls, not including deposit and other fees. The fiscal note associated with the bill was $8 million. 
  • The legislation include a 270-day implementation period to allow the Department of Corrections to renegotiate the existing contract it had with its telecom provider. Securus and the City quickly renegotiated the terms of the contract: (1) the City would pay $0.03 per minute for all calls and (2) together they would monitor call volume for four month after implementation and Securus would install additional phones if call volume required it. 
  • Call volume jumped 38% overnight when the law went into effect without incident. Based on the new volume and cost structure, the City is expected to pay $2.5 million for the first year, representing a savings of nearly half a million dollars. Simultaneously, directly impacted families would see a savings of nearly $10 million annually, money that would largely stay in their local New York City communities.

Key Uncertainties

  • How quickly can advocacy or non-profit deployment efforts scale?
  • Contracts often get bid on infrequently or renewed regularly to the same provider. Would you have to force this process to open up more? 
    • Prison Policy Initiative found that no-bid contract renewals doubled the length of existing contracts (50 months to 119 months) for a large fraction of the contracts reviewed (71%, 66/93).
  • Other interventions have failed or gone very slowly. Will these pressures also bog down non-profit deployment, advocacy or data efforts? 
    • Class action lawsuit - Federal bills are named after Martha Wright-Reed, who fought this problem for 20 years, including a large class action lawsuit in 2000. That class action is still ongoing.
    • Federal legislation - Federal legislation has been introduced repeatedly over the past few years, and languishes in committee before dying. “[Rep. Bobby] Rush has introduced bills to address the high cost of phone calls in prisons and jails nine times, starting in 2005, but has not been able to get any signed into law,” The Huffington Post wrote in an article on this year’s bill. 
    • FCC federal regulation - As noted above, the FCC has attempted to regulate rates and been shut down in the courts.The FCC proposed rate caps for both video calls and site commissions on traditional telephone calls starting in 2015, but in 2017, the DC circuit court ruled that both were not covered by the law. The Intercept summary
    • State regulation - Both California (SB555) and Massachusetts (in-flight) passed bills through their respective legislatures that were later vetoed by their governors. 

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There are substantial kickbacks (called “site commissions”), where a large percentage of the per-minute rates are paid to the facilities for the right to the contract. A typical rate is 50%, and these can run as high as 96%. Given they get a percentage of every dollar spent, the facilities also have an incentive to keep costs high to increase their revenue, not to give the end consumer the lowest cost of connection.

Does any of this money also get sent back to the county/state too? Just wondering what other stakeholders are benefitting from the status quo.

 

Given the way these prisons are run (it seems often poorly with a profit motive rather than one trying to help reduce recidivism) why not just start a nonprofit private prison from scratch and manage the whole thing? Palmer Luckey mentioned this in an interview a while back as something he'd be working on if he hadn't decided to build Anduril: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jilliandonfro/2019/10/31/palmer-luckey-oculus-anduril-forbes-under-30-summit-nonprofit-prisons/?sh=7f3d1615ecee

In one sense this is a distributional issue, hurting the families of the convicted, who are likely to be relatively poor by US (but not global) standards. That would argue against it being high priority, as one might instead lobby for more progressive US policies, which is also not priority for reasons often discussed.

Although I guess you might could make the case that US long term prisoners themselves are among the worst off people in the world?

Anyways there may be an important efficiency issue here: prisoners are charged well above (the near 0) cost per call, so they will “under-consume” communication with families. And these communications might have very large benefits for the psychological well being of prisoners and their families and maybe their reintegration into society?

This is a really important issue!

A big thing to keep in mind-along with most other issues in the US- are the people and entities that are preventing solutions from happening. There are many bills on important issues that get killed after several attempts. To me based on a recent advocacy effort in my city on this issue there seems to be lots of public support.

I think we need to be asking, "what are tangible ways to get solutions passed that the public already supports?" It's in part a matter of navigating an oligarchy.

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