Calls and visits are lifelines to the outside world and critical to maintaining important relationships and community ties for incarcerated people. Research has shown that communication between incarcerated people and their loved ones increases safety and hope within prisons and jails, decreases recidivism and improves reentry outcomes upon release, and mitigates separation trauma for children with incarcerated parents.

Yet, across the country, private companies have been exploiting communication with the help of government partners to the tune of $1.2 billion.

But thanks to years of advocacy, that is now starting to change.


New York City

Connecticut

Massachusetts


Frequently Asked Questions

Legislation

What must legislation include to truly promote communication from prisons and jails?
Why is legislation that eliminates commissions on calls from prisons and jails not enough?
Is legislation the only way we can make communication from prisons and jails free?
Our service contract does not expire for a few years, can we still make communication from prisons and jails free?

Costs

How do we calculate the cost of providing communication services that we have previously charged communities for?
We have collected commissions on calls and have become dependent on these revenues; what now?
Should we consider changes in call volume when calculating the appropriate contract value for our communications provider?
What cost benefits are created by increasing access to communication?

Implementation

If legislation disturbs an existing contract, should we be concerned about an interruption of service?
What is the recommended contract structure for a correctional communication service contract?
We don’t have enough phones to support a significant increase in calls; What should we do to manage phone access?

People pay for cell phone service; why should we make phone calls free for those who are incarcerated?


Legislation & XXX

 

What must legislation include to Truly promote communication from prisons & Jails?

A comprehensive bill that encourages communication between incarcerated people and their support networks should:

  • Create a right to voice communication services, regardless of whether those services are provided through traditional telephone or modern voice over internet protocol (VoIP) technology

  • Establish an access floor for voice communication services (suggested: 90 mins per day per person)

  • Allow for the introduction of new types of communication technology, including video conferencing and electronic mail

  • Require that all communication services, to the extent that they are provided, are free to both the initiating and receiving parties

  • Prohibit the government from collecting revenue based on the provision of communication services

  • Create a right to in-person, and where possible, contact visits

 

Model Legislation

The [AGENCY] shall provide persons in its custody and confined in a correctional facility with voice communication services, such as telephone or voice over internet protocol services,  at a minimum of [CALL MINUTES] per day. The commissioner may supplement such voice communication service with any other communication service, including, but not limited to, video communication and electronic mail services. To the extent that the commissioner provides such voice communication or any other communication service, each such service shall be provided free of charge to the person initiating and the person receiving the communication. The [AGENCY] shall not receive revenue for the provision of voice communication service or any other communication service to any person in its custody and confined in a correctional facility. The [AGENCY] shall provide in-person contact visits to persons who are in its custody and confined in a correctional facility.

 

Why is legislation that eliminates commissions on calls from prisons and jails not enough?

Commissions increase the costs of calls from prisons and jails, but are not the only factor in predatory call rates. There are plenty of cases where the most expensive calls from a correctional agency are non-commissionable calls, this is particularly an issue in major cities with large jail populations.

Additionally, eliminating commissions does not automatically reduce call rates. In order for an agency to have its call rates reduced after eliminating its commissions, in most cases, it will still need to renegotiate its service contract, which may not result in a proportional reduction. And if the agency fails to renegotiate the contract or delays doing so, the call rates could remain the same, but rather than the agency collecting a portion of the revenue, the company would merely keep all of it.

Finally, because any reduction in call rates is met with an increase in call volume, calls are currently charged per minute, and the cost of service is typically estimated to be the prior year’s revenue to the contractor, reducing call rates by merely eliminating commissions would likely increase the cost of making calls free at a later date.

 

Is legislation the only way we can make communication from prisons and jails free?

 

Our service contract does not expire for a few years, can we still make communication from prisons and jails free?

Yes. Legislation often seeks to protect those who contracting has failed to. Many corporate contracts have a clause that invalidates any contract term that becomes illegal due to changes in law. Moreover, correctional communications contracts typically include explicit language in their termination clauses that give correctional agencies the right to terminate the contract without cause, and at times, without notice.

TBD


Cost

 

How do we calculate the cost of providing communication services that we have previously charged communities for?

In determining the cost of providing communication services in prisons or jails, agencies contemplating free communication legislation have determined the annual call revenue retained by the private service provider and held that figure flat.

For example, when New York City was considering Intro 741, which would eventually go onto to make phone calls free from the city’s jails, the City Council’s fiscal analysis determined that the annual cost of the bill would $7.7 million, roughly $5 million in lost commission revenue to the City and $2.7 million in revenue expected by its contractor. The City determined that its correctional communication service provider, Securus, should not see any increase in the contract value because the City was now responsible for the bill. Thus, the cost of service to the agency should be $2.7 million or less. Past annual revenues essentially provide a baseline from which the agency could begin negotiations.

Jurisdictions that with particularly high call rates—those above and beyond even standard predatory rates—have significant room to negotiate down the contract value and, in taking on this cost, the strong incentive to do so.

 

We have collected commissions from our existing communication service contract and have become dependent on these revenues; what now?

Though the revenue stemming from communication is often small as compared to the agency budgets they are used to fund, they are not negligible. We cannot ignore the gaps created when this revenue is erased, especially since often this revenue is used to fund important programs and services for incarcerated people. However, the loss felt by these agency budgets must be addressed by the government. Charging a special tax on communication, shifts the cost of state operations and core state functions onto the communities of color and poverty that are disproportionately targeted by the criminal legal system. It is neither ethical nor sustainable and misrepresents stated correctional priorities.

Additionally, commissions have been declining in recent years due to federal legislation. When the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) capped interstate calls in 2016, it also barred government agencies from collecting commissions on these calls. This immediately reduced the revenue government agencies were generating from calls. And with the percent of interstate calls growing across correctional agencies as people come to prefer cellphones and hold on to phone numbers longer, the percent of calls that are commissionable is decreasing. To make up for loss commissions, some correctional agencies have sought to increase their commission rate on instate calls. But as these rates top out, revenues will continue to fall. Given continued advocacy efforts on this front that are likely to be successful in reducing or eliminating commissions, it would be prudent for correctional agencies to stop depending on commission revenue.

 

Should we consider changes in call volume when calculating the appropriate contract value for our communications provider?

No. The elimination of call fees is intended to encourage communication, or increase in call volume. The suggestion that service costs will be driven up with increases in call volume is often used to derail advocacy efforts to make communication free for directly impacted communities. Today, prisons are one of the few places where people are still charged per call or per minute for voice communication services; the cost structure is antiquated and allows for excessive abuse. For service providers, the actual cost of connecting a phone call, whether instate or interstate, is counted in fractions of a cent. Any meaningful costs associated with delivering communication services are typically tied to unnecessary surveillance, inadequate maintenance, or the rare installation of new equipment. It is not connected to minor, or even dramatic, fluctuations in call volume.

Accordingly, we strongly suggest that agencies looking to provide free communication services should seek out fixed rate service contracts that are tied to the number of call stations rather than the number of calls made or call minutes used. If agencies continue to allow correctional communication service companies to charge them per minute, they will be perversely incentivized to limit communication access for incarcerated people, undermining the intention of free communication legislation. Consider, for example, a communications provider that provides voice communication services to a legislative office. As standard practice, the communication provider do not charge the legislator per minute for service. If it did, the legislator would be financially incentivized against answering their constituents' calls.

It is time prison communication providers fall in line with modern practices.

 

San Francisco’s Story

An analysis of calls from San Francisco’s jails between 2014 and 2018 revealed a doubling in the annual number of call minutes from roughly 3.5 million to 7 million. Thanks to declines in call rates, over that same period, the revenue generated by these calls remained roughly flat at just over $1 million. And due primarily to an uptick in the percent of interstate calls, which government agencies have been barred from collecting commissions on since 2016, the city’s telephone provider, Global Tel Link, saw its annual revenue increase from roughly $430,000 to $510,000. In other words, while volume of call minute increased 100%, the company’s revenue increased just 17%. Nevertheless, during this period, the company sought to renew its contract and continued to respond to efforts to reduce call rates, clearly establishing the insignificance of even drastic changes in call volume.

 

What cost benefits are created by increasing access to communication?


Implementation

 

If legislation disturbs an existing contract, should we be concerned about an interruption of service?

No. Legislation typically has an implementation period in order to give affected parties time to become compliant. With respect to free communication legislation, correctional agencies should use the implementation period to either renegotiate their existing contract or to rebid their communication service. For example, in New York City, the Department of Correction had 270 days before Intro 741, which made calls out of city jail free, took effect, and, in that time, it renegotiated its contract with its existing communications provider. With a reasonable lead time, passing such legislation should not cause an interruption of services to directly impacted communities.

 

What is the recommended contract structure for a correctional communication service contract?

Fixed rate; considers a fixed number of calling stations

 

We don’t have enough phones to support a significant increase in calls; What should we do to manage phone access?

Increase the phone to person ratio - recommend a ratio no higher than 8:1

Increase accessible hours - best outside the typical work day 9-5pm

Create a maximum access - 90 minutes/per day