The Reality of America’s Prison Phone Industry

Ding. My phone screen chimes from my grandma’s morning text. 

“How are you?” reads the text message. 

I smile and move on with my day, but with a deeper sense of peace knowing that she’s doing well in China. But for many American prisoners, a simple ‘how are you’ call to loved ones has become unattainable, as they lose their only lifeline to the outside world: phone calls. 

America’s lucrative prison system harvests $1.2 billion in profits each year from incarcerated individuals and their families through phone call charges. As of 2021, prison phone calls cost as much as $14 for just 15 minutes, and that number continues to skyrocket. But why? 

All prisons work with a telecommunications company to provide phone call service. In order to attract more customers, telecommunications companies entice prisons with high phone call rates with a promise of high return. But these exorbitant rates place a massive financial strain on low-income individuals who cannot afford to spend thousands of dollars on communication. The average woman pre-incarceration makes around $11,000 each year, thousands of dollars below the poverty line. A third of people convicted of a crime are Black, which has the highest poverty rate compared to all other demographics. Families living paycheck to paycheck are now coerced into shelling away their savings out of a desperation for social interaction.

To punish not only inmates but their families as well is harming a support system that is already strained. Punishing people, often for petty crimes, then severing social ties causes all sorts of unforeseen damages. When incarcerated individuals in prison are treated as if their lives have no value, and therefore they are less likely to find reasons to value themselves. Talking on the phone is one of few ways people hold each other up. Talking to other people is a basic human need and shouldn’t be a means for profit making

The ability for an incarcerated person to maintain communication with loved ones has a direct correlation to recidivism rates. The same pandemic isolation that triggered a 25% global increase in anxiety is the same isolation that perpetuates mental health challenges among the incarcerated population when phone calls become implausible. Former incarcerated individuals who develop mental health disorders, such as anxiety and loneliness, feed into repeated cycles of incarceration. A single visit by a family or friend reduces one’s likelihood to reoffend by 13%. Severing ties between incarcerated groups and loved ones fuels mental illnesses, increasing their likelihood of turning back to crime for a sense of normalcy. 

High prison phone costs are an institutional way majoritarian governments inflict harm on people they don’t empathize with – and their families. Children wait weeks on end just to have a five minute conversation with their imprisoned family member, before financial strains sever these relationships. In a time where virtual communication can save lives, wealth inequality and corporate profit incentives should never hinder a person from getting proper support. 

The most direct way to improve the feasibility of prison phone calls is to force politicians and lawmakers to address the issue. Support grassroots organizations and beneficial legislation, such as the Inmate Calling Technical Corrections Act, that seek to push for regulations on phone call rates. After all, no one should be forced to choose between staying financially afloat and communicating with their loved ones. No one should choose between buying weekly groceries and talking to their daughter. Yet, millions of incarcerated families are forced to make this tradeoff because the cost of communication is too high a price to pay.


Written by Sophia Li 

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