Photo Credit: Jason Farrar (Flickr)

A 1.2 billion dollar industry.  These numbers sound like they come from the entertainment industry, but they come from an industry of collect calls to and from prisons. A fifteen minute phone call to a prison in Pennsylvania, for example, costs $12.95.  The same call can be made from a non-prison line for sixty cents. The families of the prisoners must take care of the cost of each phone call. Many families live from paycheck to paycheck. One woman Kasie Campbell, spends $150 a month on calls to her husband in Texas. Ms.Campbell says that Securus Technologies, the phone company in charge of her husband’s prison, charges a $2.49 for processing her bill and $5 if she wants to pay it over the phone. These fees make up 40% of the average prison phone bill.

Before the monopoly of companies took over the prison and jail communications, the cost of phone calls to lawyers and family was similar to phone calls outside of prison. Now there are only a handful of  private companies that are in control of phones in prison and jails across all 50 states. Two of the companies, Global Tel-Link Corp. and Securus Technologies, make up 70% of the market for correctional institutes. Global Tel-Link controls 50 percent of the prison phone market and reported that it had reached a new record of 215 million calls that totalled to three billion minutes. In February of 2014, The F.C.C imposed a limit of the cost of interstate calls to and from prisons at 25 cents per minute. Companies increased their fees on calls made to and from prisons. Their reasoning was that any limit of cost below 20 cents per minute would cut too deeply into their operating margins. Advocates for prisoner rights estimated that at around 7 cents a minute, companies would still be able to profit.

While this may not seem like such a pressing issue, when we are made aware of the current population of incarcerated people, this is a huge issue of social injustice. When looking at the incarceration rates, 1 million people,  out of the 2.3 million incarcerated, are African American. Poverty rates show that people of color tend to be the ones at or below the poverty level. When looking at the amount of money spent by families to communicate with their loved ones, many of those who live in poverty must make a very difficult decision whether or not to call a loved one. Shamika Wilson-Johnson a woman whose husband is incarcerated, lives off of $500 a month, 300 of those dollars go towards paying rent for herself and her two children.

Situations like this make me question who is really being punished, the inmates or the families. There are instances where a college student was able to see her father for the first time, but has only been able to call him twice in over a year due to the high cost of phone calls. Recently the F.C.C proposed rules to bring the limit to what companies can charge for state and federal facilities it’s capped at 11 cents a minute, and 14 to 20 cents for jails. This is not the end but the beginning steps into the right direction for the families of inmates.  

This situation bothers me because there are large corporations profiting off of the misfortunes of the families, most of which are families of color. In the United States, we have fought to get rid of monopoly type companies. Why are we allowing for a handful of companies to rule over the prison phone systems? As a young Latino student, I believe that these companies are taking advantage of families who may not have a lot of money and live paycheck to paycheck. These are families who try to stay connected with loved ones but are unable to due to the high cost of phone calls. Are we going to take communication, an inalienable right, away from prisoners and their families?