Highway Robbery: Exorbitant Prison Phone Call Prices

October 18, 2018

Countless individuals who are incarcerated rely on phone calls to stay in touch with their families and peers. Simply talking on the phone for a few minutes is enough to allow them to briefly escape from the oftentimes lonely and tiresome day-to-day events of a life behind bars.

For some who are serving sentences, however, the cost of a meager one minute of phone time is $14. Because people serving sentences come from disproportionately low-income families, the inflated rates that private prison phone call companies charge per minute target people who are poor the most.

According to Bernadette Rabuy and Daniel Kopf of the Prison Policy Initiative, in 2014, the median incomes of men and women prior to incarceration were $19,650 and $13,890 respectively. To put those numbers into perspective, the average income in that year was $41,250 for men and $23,745 for women. Prisoners, the majority of whom were poverty-stricken prior to incarceration, have very few opportunities to earn money while they are incarcerated. Artificially high communications rates force prisoners and their families to rack up outrageously high bills simply because phone calls and emails – which are also unfairly priced, usually per 500 words – are their only ways to stay in touch with each other.

Calls can cost a prisoner and their family as much as $14 for a single minute of phone time.

Moreover, high prices for phone calls cause collateral damage to prisoners’ families and communities through a multitude of ways. Research conducted by Dr. Bruce Western and Dr. Becky Pettit jointly authored by the Economic Mobility Project and the Public Safety Performance Project of The Pew Charitable Trusts shows “2.7 million children have a parent behind bars—1 in every 28 children.” Without an affordable option to contact their parents on a regular basis, children are stripped of the ability to have meaningful bonds with parents and other family members who may be incarcerated. Psychologically, a huge aspect of proper child development focuses on the relationships they develop with their parents. Keeping children from speaking to their parents can lead to not only emotional distress but also developmental problems in the future, and a lack of communication creates an implicit barrier than can further stigmatize people’s perceptions of prisoners. As a society, we have a duty to put children first, and denying people – especially children – the right to speak with their loved ones is not only unethical but also disgraceful of our criminal justice system.


2.7 million children have at least one incarcerated parent, but predatory prison phone call rates deprive many of them from maintaining regular contact.

For so many people who are incarcerated, phone calls and emails are the only way to stay in touch with loved ones. Being unable to contact family members puts strains on their relationships and can inhibit their abilities to readjust back into society upon release. Multiple studies show that people who made phone calls home from prison on a regular basis were less likely to return to prison. The outrageously high prices take a toll on prisoners and their families. In one case, a mother whose son was in prison had to choose between “paying medical bills [or] talking to her son” (Cramer, 2018). By adding another barrier in the form of high calling fees, the billion-dollar US prison phone industry traps families with loved ones serving prison sentences into a cycle of poverty where what little money they do have is funneled into a private company that profits from capitalizing on human emotions and economic inelasticity.

Despite the fact that common sense and a decent understanding of benevolence show that these exorbitant prices are extremely harmful, the FCC no longer enforces regulations to keep prison phone call costs down.

Studies show that people able to make calls home from prison on a regular basis are less likely to be incarcerated again.

However, Congress may play a critical role in establishing a price ceiling for prison telecommunications. Introduced in March 2018 by Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, the “Inmate Calling Technical Corrections Act of 2018” addresses the issue of predatory prison phone rates by ensuring that phone rates are fairly priced. Still, as of October 2018, the bill remains in the referred stage of the legislative process. Until it is passed, prisoners and families who seek to communicate with each other will either have to deal with the extortionate prices or continue to file civil suits against the acquisitive billion-dollar industry.

Private prison telecommunications companies have been abusing the system for far too long. Families shouldn’t have to choose between talking to their loved ones or paying medical bills. People serving their sentences deserve to have reasonable prices when trying to communicate with others. Prison phone call prices need to be regulated so that they are fair – fair to those serving their sentences, fair to their families, fair to everyone and everything directly or indirectly affected by the system.


Cramer, M. (2018, May 03). Lawsuit challenges the high cost of calling from jail. Retrieved from Boston Globe: https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2018/05/03/lawsuit-challenges-high-cost-calling-from-jail/q17v1CL0bZBhxOXd9qOBRP/story.html

Gedye, G. (2018, July 30). A Prison Phone Giant’s Ploy to Further Exploit Inmates. Retrieved from Washington Monthly: https://washingtonmonthly.com/2018/07/30/a-prison-phone-giants-ploy-to-further-exploit-inmates/

The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2010. Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility. Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Rabuy, B., & Daniel, K. (2015, July 09). Prisons of Poverty: Uncovering the pre-incarceration incomes of the imprisoned. Retrieved from Prison Policy Initiative: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/income.html