DiscoverThe Indicator from Planet MoneyA captive market: The high price of prison phone calls
A captive market: The high price of prison phone calls

A captive market: The high price of prison phone calls

Update: 2024-06-202
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Digest

This episode of The Indicator from Planet Money delves into the exorbitant cost of prison phone calls and the movement advocating for their affordability. The episode begins with the story of Diane Lewis, whose son Javan was incarcerated and faced the financial burden of maintaining phone contact with his family. The episode then explains how the cost of prison phone calls skyrocketed despite the overall decline in phone call costs. This is attributed to the emergence of a niche industry that monopolized prison phone services, leveraging security and surveillance as justifications for high prices. The episode also highlights the role of private equity firms in consolidating the industry, leading to the dominance of two companies, Securus and Viapath. The episode then discusses the growing movement to make prison phone calls more affordable, including the Federal Bureau of Prisons' decision to make calls from federal prisons free and the Federal Communications Commission's upcoming announcement of national price caps. The episode concludes by highlighting the positive impact of free prison phone calls on reentry outcomes, citing examples from states like Connecticut, California, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Colorado, where such laws have been implemented.

Outlines

00:00:00
Introduction

This Chapter introduces the topic of prison phone calls and the financial burden they place on incarcerated individuals and their families. It features the story of Diane Lewis, whose son Javan was incarcerated and faced the high cost of staying connected with his family.

00:02:55
The Rise of Expensive Prison Phone Calls

This Chapter explores the history of prison phone calls and how their cost has increased significantly over time. It explains how the breakup of AT&T's monopoly led to lower phone call costs in general, but the prison phone industry moved in the opposite direction. The chapter highlights the role of security and surveillance services, profit-sharing agreements with prisons, and the lack of competition in driving up prices.

00:06:38
The Movement for Affordable Prison Phone Calls

This Chapter discusses the growing movement to make prison phone calls more affordable. It highlights the Federal Bureau of Prisons' decision to make calls from federal prisons free and the Federal Communications Commission's upcoming announcement of national price caps. The chapter also explores the advocacy efforts of groups like Worth Rises, which are lobbying for change at the state level.

00:08:39
The Impact of Free Prison Phone Calls

This Chapter examines the positive impact of free prison phone calls on reentry outcomes. It highlights the experiences of Diane Lewis and her son Javan, who benefited from regular phone calls while Javan was incarcerated. The chapter also discusses the research that suggests free prison phone calls can improve reentry outcomes, leading to increased support, housing, employment, and successful reintegration into society.

Keywords

Prison Phone Calls
Phone calls made by incarcerated individuals to their families and friends. These calls are often subject to high costs and restrictions, making it difficult for families to stay connected with their loved ones.

Securus
A leading provider of prison phone services in the United States. Securus has been criticized for its high prices and lack of transparency. The company has been involved in numerous lawsuits and investigations related to its practices.

Viapath
Another major provider of prison phone services in the United States. Viapath, like Securus, has faced criticism for its high prices and lack of transparency. The company has also been involved in lawsuits and investigations related to its practices.

Worth Rises
A non-profit organization that advocates for criminal justice reform, including the reduction of the cost of prison phone calls. Worth Rises has been instrumental in pushing for legislation to make prison phone calls free in several states.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
The independent agency of the United States government that regulates interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable. The FCC is expected to announce national price caps on prison and jail calls in the near future.

Private Equity
A type of investment firm that uses borrowed money to acquire companies and increase their value. Private equity firms have played a significant role in the consolidation of the prison phone industry, leading to higher prices and reduced competition.

Reentry Outcomes
The success of formerly incarcerated individuals in reintegrating into society after their release from prison. Factors that contribute to positive reentry outcomes include access to housing, employment, and support networks.

Q&A

  • Why are prison phone calls so expensive?

    The high cost of prison phone calls is due to a combination of factors, including the monopoly of a niche industry that provides phone services to prisons, the use of security and surveillance services as justifications for high prices, profit-sharing agreements between prison phone companies and prisons, and the lack of competition in the market.

  • What is the growing movement to make prison phone calls more affordable?

    The movement to make prison phone calls more affordable includes efforts to reduce prices, make calls free, and increase transparency in the industry. This movement is driven by advocacy groups, lawmakers, and the recognition of the negative impact of high phone call costs on incarcerated individuals and their families.

  • What are the benefits of free prison phone calls?

    Free prison phone calls have been shown to improve reentry outcomes, leading to increased support, housing, employment, and successful reintegration into society. They also help maintain family connections, which can be crucial for the well-being of both incarcerated individuals and their families.

  • What are some examples of states that have made prison phone calls free?

    States that have made prison phone calls free include Connecticut, California, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Colorado. These states have implemented laws that either cover the cost of calls entirely or negotiate lower rates with prison phone companies.

  • What is the role of private equity in the prison phone industry?

    Private equity firms have played a significant role in consolidating the prison phone industry, leading to higher prices and reduced competition. They have invested money to grow existing companies and acquire competitors, resulting in the dominance of a few major players.

Show Notes

When Diane Lewis' son, Jovaan, was sentenced to prison, she told him to call her every day. What he didn't know at the time is that those collect calls often meant Diane was unable to pay her other bills. Today on the show, how prison phone calls got so expensive, and the movement to make them free.

Related listening:
The Uncounted Workforce
From Prison to the Workforce
The Prisoner's Solution

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A captive market: The high price of prison phone calls

A captive market: The high price of prison phone calls