Phone Calls from Prison

The phone line can be also be a lifeline when trapped behind bars. But telephone access isn’t a right in U.S. prisons, and for many, the cost of a call would be prohibitive - if it weren’t just so essential to maintaining relationships with loved ones on the outside.


In the digital age, the price to call countries continents away can be practically nothing, but the incarcerated can be hit with prices per minute up to $15. Where are the additional costs coming from? Most agree that to blame are the fees imposed by Inmate Calling Services (ICS) - for maintenance and for profit - and encouraged by prison administration, which often receives a cut of each phone cost. THE RIGHT TO A PHONE CALL

In most states, your ability to place phone calls is not guaranteed. It can be expensive to install and maintain a phone system, so private phone companies have filled the need by providing a plan with perks for the prisons themselves, too. Securus, the largest ICS provider in the nation, for example, will provide equipment, installation, and regular maintenance at no cost to the facility. To recoup these costs, they add fees to the costs paid by inmates to place the phone calls, and to make the deal appealing to administrators, they tack on further fees as a commission for the prison or jail itself.


The Federal Communications Commission tried to step in during the Obama administration to cap the costs of both interstate (from one state to another) and intrastate (within one state) prison phone calls. ICS providers challenged the intrastate regulations, based on the federal agency’s ability to place trade restrictions across state lines but not within them, and a court recently agreed. This means that monitoring and limiting the costs in-state phone calls will be left to state-specific regulatory agencies - if they take up the task.


The cuts received by jailers themselves are the most controversial elements of the current prison phone system. Administrators see the funds as a useful supplement to operating costs; the families of the incarcerated feel them as another they’re being gouged, almost irredeemably, by the justice system. The extent to which prisons are relying on this income remains to be fully examined.


MuckRock will be growing its understanding of the compounding costs of prison phone policy, regulation, and prices. But we need your help. Tell us your story and leave us your tips at

6 Articles

Prison phone companies resorting to dubious means to recoup their costs

Hundreds of people have written to the FCC to describe tales of suffocating service fees and general confusion over a prison phone system that seems to be genuinely indifferent to the casualties of its practices.

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Minnesota records give detailed look at commission charges in state prisons

Materials released by Minnesota offer insight into trends in prison entertainment and communications, where the captive consumer population provides a clear opportunity for an Inmate Calling Services provider like JPay.

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Courts rule that FCC can’t regulate in-state prison phone calls

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled Tuesday that the Federal Communications Commission lacks the authority to cap intrastate prison phone call rates, putting to an end an Obama-era effort to rein in the bloated costs that come with dialing home from jail.

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What’s the cost of making a phone call from prison in Massachusetts?

Prison technology companies like Securus often offer commissions to their partners as part of their correctional phone services. The new release from a Massachusetts county provides a glimpse into one department’s cut of the calls.

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Playing telephone: Prison phone price complaints to the FCC fall on deaf ears

Last month, the Federal Communications Commission announced a second wave of reforms to inmate calling services. Complaints released in the wake of initial reforms, though, illustrate how companies of all sizes need closer oversight of their equipment and policies at home.

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Prison visitations are being replaced by far costlier and unreliable video phone kiosks

Video phone kiosks have been replacing real-life visitation in American jails and prisons — sometimes altogether — and the move is a welcome development for inmate calling services and prison wardens alike. For those on either end of the calls, though, it’s a direct line from their wallets to their captors’ bank accounts, and the government is having a hard time putting a stop to it.

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Minnesota DOC GTL contracts, invoices

Beryl Lipton sent this request to the Department of Corrections of Minnesota