Prisons Are Profiting off Phone Calls as COVID-19 Spreads

The FCC is under pressure to make prison phone calls free.

Two staggered pay phones attached to a brick wall.
Pay phones for inmates at the Fremont Detention Facility, pictured in 2013, in Fremont, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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It was hard for Wandjell Reneice Browning to stay in touch with her cousin long before the coronavirus crisis. He’s been incarcerated in the Lawrence Correctional Center in Illinois for four years, and the cost of phone calls was so high that there were times when they couldn’t afford to talk. Usually they check in about three times a week; now it’s more like once a week.

Those phone calls were already a lifeline, but it’s even more urgent now. It’s the only way she can stay up to date on what’s happening to him as prisons have locked down and banned visitors. “My cousin is super high risk,” she said. He has sickle cell anemia that has left him with a disabled leg and gives him constant migraines, according to Browning. “Sometimes when he calls, his breathing is so bad I can’t even recognize who he is,” she said. “I’m very scared he’s going to [get] the virus because his immune system is very weak.

“When I’m not talking to him for long periods of time, I just assume he’s dead, honestly,” she said.

Browning is not the only one hanging on every call from prison. Calls have become even more critical now that visitation has been suspended and prisons have seen COVID-19 spread like wildfire. “Generally, the only way people know anything about their families is through phone calls,” noted Bianca Tylek, executive director of prison reform nonprofit Worth Rises. They’re not going to get up-to-the-minute information about their incarcerated loved ones’ health from the facilities themselves. Even emails are often delayed thanks to screening processes.

Staying updated is even more critical now. One of the largest concentrations of coronavirus cases in the country is inside Illinois’ Cook County Jail. Other prisons and jails have also seen huge outbreaks. As of April 8, according to data collected by the New York Times, there were 1,324 cases, including 32 deaths, inside the country’s prisons and jails. Incarcerated people say they’re not being given the proper gear to keep themselves safe. Those in Florida are being asked to manufacture masks that will be distributed to corrections officers and probation officers before they can wear them themselves. Phone calls are the only way for some people in prison to communicate what’s happening inside.

But these calls to family and friends are extremely expensive, costing as much as $1 a minute. And now thanks to social distancing measures implemented to stem the spread of COVID-19, more than 22 million people have lost their jobs and about 40 percent of Americans with savings have already dipped into those funds, so they have even fewer resources to cover the cost. Even before the crisis, a third of families went into debt to stay in touch with incarcerated loved ones. “Either more people are going to go into debt or way more people aren’t going to be in touch,” Tylek said.

Those fees make a tidy profit for private companies, though. The estimated $1.2 billion industry is dominated by just two companies: Securus and GTL. Some state  and county prison systems also take a cut of the profits.

The latest coronavirus response package in Congress includes a provision that would make phone calls free for those in federal prisons. That would still leave the 1.3 million people in state prison and 631,000 people in local jails paying exorbitant fees.

Advocates are putting pressure on the Federal Communications Commission to request that prison phone companies make calls free at all facilities for at least the next 60 days as families weather the pandemic. That would ensure “everyone has the right to stay connected,” said Steven Renderos, executive director of advocacy group MediaJustice.

If the FCC doesn’t act, state and local governments could take action on their own. New York City made calls to and from jails free in 2018, and San Francisco did the same the year after. There’s similar legislation pending in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Other cities and states could do the same thing immediately.

Rep. Bobby Rush also introduced legislation at the end of March that would empower the FCC to directly regulate the prison telecom industry and to cap the cost of calls at no more than .05 cents per minute.

“The reality is that there’s a lot of different actors here that can all do something,” Tylek said. “They can all make phone calls free if they wanted to.”

Browning and her cousin are very close. “If we weren’t cousins, we could be brother and sister,” she said. They’re two months apart in age and went to school together through high school. “We got in fights together, we went out of town to family events together, we snuck around and played with animals,” she said.

The cost of calls with Browning’s cousin doesn’t actually fall on Browning herself. Her cousin puts money on his account so that loved ones don’t have to pay for the calls. But that’s money that he would otherwise use at the commissary to buy marked-up products like ramen noodles, socks, or soap. “When you have to choose between this or that, connecting with your family trumps having decent clothes and better food,” she said.

Even before her cousin was locked up, Browning knew very well what it’s like to have to miss a call from an incarcerated loved one. Both of her parents were incarcerated when she was young, she said, and there were times when they would call and she couldn’t pick up because her grandmother didn’t have the money to pay for it.

After the FCC capped the cost of prison and jail phone calls in 2015, Illinois lowered prison phone rates to 7 cents a minute in 2016, making it easier for Browning to talk to her cousin. But the prison also reduced the amount of time she can spend on the phone with him from 30 minutes to 20. It’s a significant loss. “We get to the, ‘Hey, how are you part,’ maybe we’ll laugh about a few things, and before you know it a woman comes on [saying], ‘You have one minute left,’ ” she said.

The FCC’s cap, meanwhile, was eventually struck down by a federal court, which has placed the issue in the hands of state and local governments. In the current crisis, advocates worry that the response has been left up to the individual companies to decide whether to lower rates.

“Before the pandemic, it was already hard to talk to your loved ones,” Browning noted. “But with the pandemic and zero access to visitation, it just makes it scarier and even harder.”

Renderos has a cousin incarcerated in California who has to rely on his family to cover the cost of phone calls. His aunt often can’t pick up when his cousin calls because she can’t afford it. In that situation, “You feel isolated, you feel left behind,” he said.

Prison phone calls aren’t just vital during a pandemic. Keeping up family ties makes it less likely someone will commit another crime when they’re released. “When people can’t talk to their families for years on out, they’re strangers when they come home,” Browning said. “Everything is completely different. The world is back to the future.”

So while advocates want to see emergency action now, they also hope it will crack open the door to longer lasting change. “It’s an unprecedented moment in history, and it requires an unprecedented solution,” Renderos said. Making calls free now could “make something possible that seems impossible and … push for that new reality beyond the pandemic.”

In the meantime, Browning is focused on talking to her cousin as frequently as she can. Her cousin “wasn’t sentenced to life in prison,” she pointed out. But given that “prisons are literally incubators for this virus,” she worries that’s exactly what he faces.