As anyone who has ever had a loved one incarcerated long-term can tell you, prison can be a black box, throwing up barriers — both literal and figurative — to communication with family. After a while, that can make some of those inside start to feel like their true home is behind bars, which doesn't do much to fight recidivism once they get out.
While frequent phone calls can help alleviate some of that feeling of disconnection, there's yet another hurdle in that case, one that exists only because it's profitable: the inmate phone system. What most American inmates — or, more accurately, their families — pay to connect a phone call would have your average consumer on the street rushing to the next phone provider faster than you can say "free market."
But with no other options, inmates in some states pay up to 20 times what a similar call would cost a person on the outside. Change could be coming. The Federal Communications Commission recently signaled its interest in reforming the prison phone rate system.
The Arkansas Department of Correction, through a contract with prison phone provider Global Tel-Link — one of a handful of niche telecom providers who hold sway over the inmate calling industry — collects a 45 percent commission on every inmate phone call placed. According to documents supplied by the ADC, commissions from inmate calls paid to the department during the first 11 months of 2012 totaled $1,789,489, an average of $162,680.81 per month. That's down from the ADC's 2011 commission of $2.2 million, an average of $184,052.50 per month.
While the ADC doesn't keep track of how many calls were placed, they do track how many minutes were used by inmates. According to documents supplied by the ADC, during the first 11 months of 2012, ADC inmates placed 9,159,506 minutes of calls to in-state numbers, and 617,690 minutes of calls to out-of-state numbers. Currently, inmate calls are capped at 15 minutes for personal calls and 30 minutes for calls to an attorney. A spokesperson for the ADC said that calls to attorneys are free.
For personal calls, inmates pay a surcharge of $3 per call for in-state calls and $3.95 to call out-of-state. On top of that, inmates are charged 12 cents per minute for in-state calls, and 45 cents per minute for out-of-state calls. Currently, a 15-minute in-state call would cost $4.80 before taxes, while a 15-minute interstate call would cost $10.70. An inmate making a once-a-week 15-minute call to a family member out of state would pay more than $550 per year. With all inmate calls being made collect or by a debit system that allows family members to put money on an inmate's phone account, the cost of those calls is usually passed on to the inmate's family.
With the majority of inmates coming to prison from poverty, those phone charges can add up quickly for families trying to stay in regular touch with their relatives. ADC spokesperson Shea Wilson said that all money collected by the ADC from inmate phone commissions goes into a "telephone fund" that is used to pay for operations, safety and security needs, metal detectors, computer equipment and maintenance, and other items. Wilson said the $100 "gate checks" given to inmates on their release are also drawn from the telephone fund.
Costs for inmate phone calls have been much higher in the past, Wilson said. She noted that inmates have the option of visitation or writing letters if calls are too expensive for their families. She said the ADC is also working to develop an incoming email system that would allow families to send emails that would be screened and then given to the inmate.