The price of phone calls for inmates will decline

by on August 10, 2013 at 3:16 am in Economics, Law | Permalink

After a decade of lobbying by prisoner advocacy groups, the Federal Communications Commission on Friday voted to lower inmate phone call rates.

The action seeks to address the exorbitant rates for phone calls made by inmates in jails and prisons across the country. A 15-minute phone call can cost $17, more than 10 times the average per-minute rate for typical consumer plans.

The proposal approved Friday will reduce the cost of phone calls made by prison inmates to a cap of 25 cents a minute for a collect call and 21 cents a minute for a debit or prepaid call.

By the way:

Phone companies oppose the changes, arguing they would make an already-competitive market even tougher on their bottom lines.

The companies insist it simply costs more to provide inmate phone services, which require security features such as call screening, restricting phone numbers and blocking three-way calls.

There is more here, and for the pointer I thank George McQuistion.

1 dan1111 August 10, 2013 at 3:39 am

“Phone companies oppose the changes, arguing they would make an already-competitive market even tougher”

If by already-competitive, they mean a monopoly contract granted by a party other than the one actually paying the rates.

“The companies insist it simply costs more to provide inmate phone services, which require security features such as call screening, restricting phone numbers and blocking three-way calls.”

It is really expensive for someone to click a button that turns on that software.

2 JohnC August 10, 2013 at 4:13 am

Well, there’s a bit more flipping a switch: There’s the cost of monitoring phone calls, among other things. But, that also doesn’t seem to be a universal problem (mostly, the real argument is that prison shouldn’t be too nice – an argument usually made by people who’ve never been in prison).

It’ll be interesting to see how much additional useful information comes with the increase in phone calls: Inmates can be chatty; their families even more so. Even their lawyers shoot their mouth off when they shouldn’t.

3 dan1111 August 10, 2013 at 4:21 am

I was exaggerating a little bit, but the per-minute costs are surely minimal: according to the article, in Missouri, which has banned commissions being paid to prisons, the cost is less than 12 cents per minute. That shows where the real issue lies.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think the phone companies are doing any monitoring–they merely provide a way for jail officials to monitor the calls if they want.

4 JohnC August 10, 2013 at 4:00 am

“This is a market failure,’ said Deborah Golden, attorney for the D.C. Prisoners Project, who has fought to lower prison phone rates.”

How exactly is this a market failure? (And, on a related note, do we want market successes with prisons?)

5 mulp August 10, 2013 at 2:26 pm

Note that half the people in prison are convicted of believing in free markets, and even worse, engaging in free market activity.

What I find bizarre is how a free marketeer like say Milton Friedman, could ever support Reagan and those Reagan Republicans who were such strong opponents of the free market, constantly calling for locking up millions of people for serving free market demand, and constantly finding more and more things to provide trading in the free market, and turning the US into the nation that has the most people under the total care of the state.

While Reagan was known for his war on crime and war on drugs, he was really at war on free markets.

But in many ways, he was highly supportive of increased drug use as long as the drugs were high priced and high profit and controlled by corporations. Breaking bad is all about the individual drive to serve the free market as an individual that was once restricted to the big corporations. Speed was readily available from corporations until the equal protection of the law was enforced on corporations in equal measure to the war on individual free traders.

Basically, the high phone rates are just another matter of applying the equal protection of the law – if prisoners are not allowed to make a profit from a regulated market, why should phone companies be allowed to profit from a regulated market. After all, a free market would be prisoners using cell phones, but when they are caught using cell phones, they get punished again for free trade activity.

6 Nathan W August 10, 2013 at 4:10 pm

Well they wouldn’t be in prison if they were the ones making the rules, would they?

That’s why we need advocacy groups. Some people are systematically prevented from advocating for themselves.

7 Marie August 12, 2013 at 8:49 am

Speed, like amphetamine-based drugs? Like Adderall and Ritalin?

I do agree on the contrast between individual drug dealers and large corporations — essentially what is happening is that the government is not punishing drug dealing, it is punishing drug dealing that doesn’t conform to certain specs only practical for large corporations to conform to.

At the same time, I don’t think it would be an improvement if we could add approval of crystal meth use to approval of inappropriate Ritalin use. How about we put the school counselor I saw bullying a mom into medicating her son against her will in prison next to the meth dealers? I think I could get behind that. . . .

8 Rahul August 10, 2013 at 4:30 am

“The companies insist it simply costs more to provide inmate phone services, which require security features such as call screening, restricting phone numbers and blocking three-way calls.”

What an onerous feature set of features. Oh the hardship it’ll cause the telephone providers to innovate and provide these novel features.

9 Scoop August 10, 2013 at 9:29 am

If “blocking three-way calls” means preventing the prisoner from initiating them from the prison, then I agree with your sarcasm, but I’d assume it means automatically detecting and disconnecting any multi-party call the prisoner dials into.

I’ve certainly never heard of any technology that does that, other than just listening in on every call. Seriously, how the hell can they stop you from dialing someone who then goes on to dial another person and patches you through?

10 JohnC August 10, 2013 at 11:40 am

There indeed are assorted detection technologies; intelligence agencies have used them for a while (for phone tampering among other things). For prisons, some analyze an aspect of the initial two-way call that changes when a three-way call is attempted (i.e., echo characteristics or line voltage). Others require the home party to use special equipment. And another (more accurate, if more complex) possibility involves network steganography (embedding a signal in the voice data).

None are 100% effective (either some calls get through, or calls are falsely dropped); plus, there are the obvious, low-tech workarounds (not to mention the non-call options: Everything from Laser mics, to lip-readers and binos, to the assorted smuggled devices that give a new meaning to “butt dialing”).

11 Rahul August 10, 2013 at 12:20 pm

Pardon my ignorance, but why are 3-way calls banned in the first place? I did not know this till now.

12 JohnC August 10, 2013 at 5:06 pm

Third-party and other alternative call arrangements are not permitted for much the same reasons that in-person visits are limited to approved persons (i.e., to family, counsel, perhaps the media, etc,): To make sure inmates don’t use phones for “inappropriate” purposes (telling a fellow villain to lie, hectoring witnesses, facilitating crime, etc.) and otherwise preserve prison/jail security (the calls may be recorded; but few are actively monitored). Call recipients need to be pre-approved before they can receive calls, and thereafter are subject to the prison’s communication strictures and penalties for violating them.

Letters and email are also restricted, but much less so (hence, websites like “”).

13 Rahul August 11, 2013 at 12:20 am

Restricting in-person visits to approved persons sounds like an overly restrictive policy to me. I’m surprised that doing so does not violate any of the constitutional freedoms especially in the US. Then again, maybe the fact that they did commit a felony gives reason enough to stamp out some of the usual privileges.

14 JohnC August 11, 2013 at 3:28 pm

Given the number of psychopaths, addicts, the mentally ill, assorted feral morons,etc., courts give prisons a lot of leeway so long as there’s a rational penological or administrative reason.'s+rights+to+visitation/association&hl=en&sa=X&ei=yeQHUrjsF9StyAH2vYCAAg&ved=0CDAQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Prisoner's%20rights%20to%20visitation%2Fassociation&f=false

15 Karl August 10, 2013 at 6:55 am

Can some prisons simply stop offering phone service if they find the costs too high?

16 dan1111 August 10, 2013 at 7:16 am

There is no cost to prisons here. Phone companies are paying the prisons huge amounts of money for the right to have a monopoly on providing phone service for inmates. That is why the rates are so high. Even with this cap on rates, the companies will be able to provide the service and make money on it. They are doing that for far less in states that have banned commissions, already.

17 Ed August 10, 2013 at 8:08 am

Good. I fully support this. I’m the ultimate free market advocate and normally would be aghast at a the government regulating prices for a service. But we most understand. Prison inmates are quite literally a captive market. They are confined by the government itself. Punishment should not extend to their families in the form of vastly inflated collect call charges.

Before someone dismisses this as being “soft on criminals”, realize what this does NOT do. It does not prevent prisons from restricting phone calls in any manner whatsoever. They control when prison phones may be used, to whom may be called, how long each call lasts, and how many calls can be made in a month. They can listen in on the calls themselves.

There are also a whole lot of reasons why allowing prisons to make some limited calls to family is a good idea. Keep family relationships going, so prisons have something better than the streets to go back to.

18 mulp August 10, 2013 at 2:32 pm

But you do understand the irony of your belief in free markets and your rationalization for prisons holding and controlling people for engaging in free trading. Half the prisoners and probationers are felons for engaging in free market activity, and by being convicted of free market activity increasingly prohibits them from participating in the free market, because anyone, who believes that satisfying market demand is just, is not morally qualified to be employed in satisfying market demand.

19 Tom T. August 10, 2013 at 11:50 am

Maybe these people can take on hotel room phone charges next.

20 jacobus August 10, 2013 at 12:36 pm

Someone already did that.

It’s called a cell phone.

21 prior probability August 10, 2013 at 12:45 pm

Another reason why house arrest is better than public or private prisons

22 Engineer August 10, 2013 at 3:19 pm

All the extra services that the telcos nothing beyond the cost of the equipment (which now univerally supports all the services).

VOIP providers throw in call screening etc. at no charge.

23 Arjun V August 11, 2013 at 7:24 pm

This is simply the entitlement behavior of the telcos. Overall local and long distance rates have fallen by an order of magnitude with deregulation. Not to mention Internet data access rates have also similarly fallen. It is not practical for the Carriers to differentially charge a user that uses VoIP like Skype to call. In which case should certain prisons provide limited Internet access to inmates they could just as well use VoIP and do these same calls for free. The point being that the Carriers cannot justify under any means having a price differential between what a product/service costs for an inmate than what it costs in the market at large. Incarceration cannot become an opportunity for a service provider to create a price premium. Does the water and electricity cost more for the inmates even though they don’t directly pay for it ?

24 Rahul2 August 12, 2013 at 4:08 am

Think I read somewhere that the high phone charges have created a market for contraband cellphones in prisons.

25 JohnC August 12, 2013 at 4:17 pm

Well, the black market would exists anyway: The facilities/states with the highest phone charges find about the same number of contraband phones as do the places with the lowest charges.

But, it is a growing and lucrative business, as demonstrated by AT&T’s recent, “Add your bitch for just $10” plan.

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