Most prisons in America contract out their phone services for incarcerated people to two telecommunications companies: Securus Technologies and Global Tel Link. This allows those companies to set and control pricing for the vast majority of all phone calls from people in prison. Incarcerated people typically set up accounts with one of these companies and family members deposit money into their accounts for these phone calls. As part of a deal with the state, millions of dollars in commission payments go to state and local law enforcement coffers. Meanwhile, families of people in prison often struggle to afford the cost of communicating with their loved ones.

The per-minute phone call rates that families of people in prison are charged are often exorbitant, forcing them to choose between meeting their own basic needs or communicating regularly with family members in prison.

Diane Lewis, the mother of Jovaan Lumpkin, formerly incarcerated at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution in Suffield, Connecticut, said the cost of talking to her son two or three times a week sometimes replaced meals. Other times, it forced her to choose between talking to Lumpkin or having her lights and gas on. Lewis said she kept these struggles from her son because she knew how much he looked forward to the calls and she didn’t want to dampen his spirits. Lewis told the Yale Daily News that Lumpkin was “feeling worse than any of us would ever feel, and he needed us to keep him uplifted.”

She said the idea of having to pay so much to express her love for her son was baffling. “To tell your kids you love them should be free.”

Last summer, Ashley Smith told the Colorado Springs Independent that she spent roughly $3,000 during a nine-month period to pay for calls for her husband, who is incarcerated in the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center.

“It’s hard on people who have family members in jail,” Smith told the newspaper.

In 2019, the Prison Policy Initiative, a criminal justice think tank based in Easthampton, Massachusetts, issued a report that found that Connecticut families forked out $13.3 million in 2018 to talk to their loved ones behind bars—of which the state received a $7.7 million cut, with Securus collecting the remaining $5.6 million. On average, the call rate for families of people in prison is $5 per 15-minute call, the newspaper reported.

Nationally, rates can go even higher. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) made criminal justice reform a huge platform for her recent presidential bid. In an article she authored on Medium last June, Warren criticized the government for standing “silently by while private contractors providing services in both public and private centers come up with extortive schemes to make millions off of the backs of [incarcerated people].” Warren said some prison telecom companies “charge as much as $25 for a 15-minute call.”

Martha Wright-Reed of Washington, D.C., decided to sue the Corrections Corporation of America for exploiting incarcerated people. She was paying roughly $100 a month to talk to her grandson, Ulandis Forte, when he was locked up in Arizona. Wright-Reed, a retired nurse, toldThe Washington Post she had to choose between paying for her medication or communicating with her grandson.

While Wright-Reed passed away before she could see her decades-long work materialize, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) has taken up her fight and introduced the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act, a bipartisan bill (SB 1764) that would push the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to put a cap on how high phone calls from people in prison can go. The bill states that “charges for communicating with individuals detained in prisons, jails, and detention centers have been shown to be unjust and unreasonable as a result of industry practices and lack of competition.”

The Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act states that the FCC has the legal authority to set limits on what Securus Technologies, Global Tel Link, and any other prison telecom company can charge incarcerated people and their families for phone rates. However, the FCC maintains the agency lacks the authority to impose price caps on state prison calls.

The Prison Policy Initiative has been pushing the FCC to regulate prison phone rates for years. In a recent report, the organization said: “It is well within the power of both prisons and jails to negotiate for low phone rates for incarcerated people, by refusing to accept kickbacks (i.e. commissions) from the provider’s revenue and by striking harder bargains with the providers.”

The organization pointed out that some state prisons have already negotiated lower rates, including Illinois, which successfully negotiated for phone calls from people in prison to cost less than a penny a minute. New York City has made prison phone calls free.

So it can be done. Lowering the rates would theoretically allow more family members and friends to stay in touch with their loved ones in prison. The ability to maintain those connections can also have long-term benefits for incarcerated individuals.  

A report from the Vera Institute of Justice found that enabling incarcerated individuals to affordably talk to their family members not only reduced the burden and hardship on their families, it actually decreased the likelihood that they would be reincarcerated. Further, the report drew a parallel finding that incarcerated individuals who remained in close contact with their family members were also the ones more apt to be successful later when they reintegrated into society.

Lewis didn’t need a study to tell her this. She experienced it firsthand when her son was released from prison.

“Jovaan being able to talk to his family and know we love him made him work to get home, to do the programs, to work his job,” she told the Yale Daily News.