NEW YORK — Like many Americans with aging parents, Dominque Jones-Johnson started checking in more regularly with her father when the coronavirus pandemic broke out—but unlike most families, the cost of the calls strained her budget to the breaking point.
Her father, Charles Brown Jr., is incarcerated for aggravated rape, burglary, and “crimes against nature”—she said he was falsely accused of all charges—in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where a 15-minute phone call costs $3.15.
By May, these local calls—which would have been free for most people living in the state—had cost the family nearly $400.
“They’re making me pay to incarcerate myself,” Charles Brown Jr. told the Thomson Reuters Foundation earlier this month. A week later, he contracted COVID-19 and was put in isolation, no longer able to speak with his daughter.
Ms. Jones-Johnson, who founded the charity Daughters Beyond Incarceration, said in a phone interview that “the money stressed me out, but not talking to him stresses me out more”.
With COVID-19 curtailing visits in many prisons and jails, families rely on phone calls, video chats, and other forms of messaging, but advocates say the high costs of those services take a heavy financial toll on the people who can least afford them.
Even before the pandemic, a third of families went into debt to finance visits to incarcerated relatives and use telephone and messaging systems, said Bianca Tylek, executive director of advocacy group Worth Rises.
Now, those communications services are essential to the roughly 2.3 million people behind bars in the United States.
“People need to be in touch more than ever,” said Ms. Tylek. “And they have less money than ever to pay for it.”
A spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Corrections said it offers 30 minutes of free calls a week during the pandemic and that it “understands the importance of inmates maintaining contact with loved ones.”
In US prisons and jails, private firms build out the communications infrastructure in exchange for the opportunity to charge for their services, often splitting revenue from the calls, video chats, and messaging services with the facility.
Critics of the practice refer to it as a form of kickback, paid by the industry to win access to captive customers.
A report published last year by the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) found that the average cost of a 15-minute call from local jails is $5.74.
Rates in state-run prisons are significantly lower, and calls across state lines from jails and prisons have been capped at 21 cents per minute by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which currently only regulates interstate calling.
While phone calls make up the bulk of communications between prisoners and their families, video calling and e-mail services, offered via kiosks and tablets, are often set up under similar agreements.
A 2017 case-study by the Vera Institute of Justice found the video calls in Washington State—which at the time cost $12.95—proved too expensive for many inmates and nearly 90% never even tried to use the service.
Ms. Jones-Johnson must pay $7.50 for a 30-minute video call with her father.
For local and state governments, those costs can be a significant source of revenue, explained Democratic Representative Josh Elliott, who is sponsoring legislation that would make phone calls from Connecticut’s state prisons free.
In 2019, Securus Technologies, a private firm that operates the phone network, spent $40,000 to hire lobbyists to oppose Mr. Elliott’s legislation, according to government documents.
After the lobbying became public Securus, which is owned by LA-based private equity firm Platinum Equity, promised it would no longer oppose the bill, Mr. Elliott said.
“This is the most straightforward thing,” he said in a phone interview. “Make calls free so people can be in touch with their families.”
The pandemic has made a tough situation even tougher, said Mashonda Jones, whose son has been incarcerated for three years at the Virginia Beach Correctional Center following a conviction for breaking and entering, according to local media.
Ms. Jones runs a soul food restaurant that was forced to shut down in March because of coronavirus restrictions—her son’s facility is not allowing visitors.
With money tight, she now spends $100 a week on calls and video conferencing so that her grandchildren can stay connected with their father.
“Even though their dad is incarcerated I want them to know they still have a dad,” she said.
Global Tel Link (GTL), the company that operates the phones at the jail, offers two free five-minute calls a week, Ms. Jones said. Video conferencing at the facility costs $7.50 for 30 minutes.
“It wasn’t enough,” Ms. Jones said. “It’s just hello, how you doing, here are the kids and then he’s gone.”
A spokesman for GTL said it was “evaluating ways we may be able to improve our permanent free weekly communications program in the future.”
Kathy Hieatt, spokeswoman for the Virginia Beach Sheriff’s Office said in e-mailed comments that inmates pay 11 cents per minute for both local and long-distance calls, down from 15 cents per minute in 2018.
A spokeswoman for Securus said it had lowered the average cost of calls by more than 30% per minute over the last three years. The company said this month it had offered “191 million free minutes of phone connections” since the start of the pandemic.
Ms. Tylek, with Worth Rises, pointed out that adds up to less than 10 minutes of free calling a week for the more than 1.2 million in facilities with Securus phones.
In recent years, lawmakers and regulators have taken steps to rein in the price of connection for incarcerated families.
The Democrat-controlled US Congress passed a law in May that would empower the FCC to limit the cost of calls within states as well as between states, and would bar local and state governments from taking a cut of the revenue.
The law has not yet passed the Republican-controlled Senate.
Brian Hill, the CEO of Edovo, a start-up that builds cheaper connectivity tools for incarcerated people—including tablets and free education software—said the root problem is the profit-sharing model.
“The system taxes the families of those who are incarcerated,” he said. “Ideally, you’d get rid of revenue sharing across the board.”
Ms. Tylek, who tries to convince investors to boycott companies that profit off incarceration, said the only solution is to put the firms out of business, and have the government pick up the bill for all essential services, like phone calls.
Meanwhile, Ms. Jones-Johnson is so worried that her father won’t receive adequate treatment for COVID-19 that she’s willing to pay what it takes to check in on him.
“It’s a constant struggle,” said Ms. Jones-Johnson. “But what else can I do?” — Avi Asher-Schapiro/Thomson Reuters Foundation