This article is part of the Future Agenda, a series from Future Tense in which experts suggest specific, forward-looking actions the new Biden administration should implement.
As the world has turned to videoconferencing in the pandemic, communications in and out of jails and prisons have, too, gone virtual. As a result of bans on in-person visitation, voice and video calls are the only way people incarcerated in jails or prisons can contact family and friends as detention centers turn into pandemic hot spots.
Correctional communications affect well over half of the American population, the share of people in the United States who have had a family member incarcerated. That proportion is significantly higher in low-income families, communities of color, and states in the American South and West. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, video visitation and voice calls were a crucial way for incarcerated Americans to maintain ties to their communities.
But these connections come at a high cost, literally. The prison phone industry alone is a multibillion-dollar industry (estimated at $1.2 billion in 2012, the most recent year for which numbers are available) that exploits a community already surveilled, criminalized, and pushed into debt by the criminal punishment system. In addition to violating basic human rights, restricting communications in and out of correctional facilities can lead to a strain in relationships, a fracturing of networks, poor mental health outcomes, and a greater likelihood of recidivism for people who are incarcerated. High costs even prevent incarcerated Americans from communicating with their lawyers, damaging the already tenuous integrity of the criminal justice system itself.
If you have listened to Serial, you will recognize the names of companies like Securus and Global Tel Link, which have a near monopoly on phone access in correctional facilities across the country and charge up to $25 for a 15-minute local phone call. Contracts are awarded not to the telecommunications company that provides the most competitive rates or best call service to incarcerated consumers, but rather, to the one whose bid offers the largest percentage of call revenue to the detention facility. This creates perverse incentives for jails, prisons, and call providers to increase the cost of calls while giving no reasons to improve services or change a system that drives 1 in 3 families who use it into debt—especially since detention centers have become accustomed to and dependent on this revenue over time.
Meanwhile, since the 1980s, telecommunications companies have been conducting massive mergers and bundling other services including money transfer and commissary management, tablets, and video technology in their call contracts. This obscures the real costs of each service and makes it harder for detention facilities to switch vendors in the event of exploitative contract changes, since this would require an overhaul of multiple service provision systems, rather than just the contract for phone calls.
Additionally, video calling in jails and prisons is one of the most quickly growing forms of communication in and out of detention facilities as jails and prisons across the country are increasingly transitioning from in-person to video visitation even when there is no public health crisis to manage, against the recommendations of organizations like the American Correctional Association and Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections. But jail and prison video calls cost up to $1 a minute and often are of such low quality as to be functionally useless. If wardens and sheriffs succeed in replacing in-person visits with video, incarcerated Americans who want to retain any connections with their communities on the outside will have to contend with an unregulated system of exploitative correctional videoconferencing providers, whose services are often too expensive for individuals to utilize, so poorly implemented that using them proves pointless, and are riddled with malfunctions that can compromise incarcerated people’s right to a fair trial.
Efforts to tackle these and other issues have had some but limited success. In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission capped the cost of prison calls at 11 cents a minute and jail calls at 25 cents a minute while regulating some of the hidden fees that can easily double the cost of a call. But in response, telecommunications companies sued, and a federal court ruled that the FCC had only the authority to regulate interstate prison phone calls. A 2019 bill to address correctional communications introduced in the Senate by a bipartisan coalition never made it out of committee.
However, this year’s federal stimulus packages proved an unexpected opportunity to make progress on the fight for phone justice. The CARES Act included a provision to make phone calls in federal facilities free during the pandemic, which went into effect. As a part of the HEROES Act, which passed in the House but not the Senate, the Martha Wright Prison Phone Justice Act proposed further capping call rates for state and local facilities as well as banning commissions received by detention facilities from telecommunications companies.
Soon after, in an even more unexpected turn of events, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai proposed capping rates for international prison phone calls for the first time and setting new, lower rate caps for interstate prison phone calls at 14 cents a minute for prison calls and 16 cents a minute for jail calls. (Jail calls are capped at a higher rate to account for the increased cost per person of administering services in a smaller facility.) He also urged state utility commissioners to take action on intrastate calls, which he correctly stated disproportionately affect Black Americans. But the new FCC proposals for rate caps on phone calls are far from a done deal, still requiring public comment and development of a new set of finalized rules. This process could easily become destabilized by commissioners who are unwilling to stand up to powerful telecommunications monopolies. Moreover, the rate caps and commission bans enacted in the CARES Act and proposed in the HEROES Acts expire when the pandemic ends. And even if the CARES Act provision making calls from federal prisons free sticks, it does not address the high costs of the approximately 90 percent of jail and prison calls that occur within a state.
Eliminating commissions, like the Martha Wright Prison Phone Justice Act proposed, is an essential step in combating the myriad problems with jail and prison communications contracts. But telecommunications companies have shown they are more than capable of continuing to exploit even a commission-free system by making their profits instead by charging hundreds of dollars in hidden fees to friends and family of incarcerated Americans. This problem is exacerbated by bundled services that block cost transparency and make it difficult for detention centers to negotiate fairer contracts, even if they wanted to. Additionally, no proposed FCC regulations or congressional provisions tackle the problem of prohibitively expensive and ineffective jail and prison video calls.
A Biden FCC needs to tackle all of this: extending reform efforts to jails and intrastate communications, tackling exploitative video call contracts for the first time, and addressing the problems of fees and monopolistic bundled service provision in addition to fully dismantling the regressive commission system. Better yet, the commission would fully eliminate all charges for calls from any detention facility, acknowledging that speaking with our loved ones is a basic human need and that a system that profits off of making communication less attainable for millions of Americans makes none of us safer. The president- and vice president–elect both have spotty histories on incarceration and criminalization, but they have promised to champion the most progressive criminal justice reform of any administration in history. To keep their commitment and enact correctional communications reforms that already have bipartisan support, Biden can secure an early win by appointing FCC commissioners who will put fixing the broken prison and jail communications system at the top of their agenda.