Are Inmate Phone Privileges Too Costly?

High phone rates can make it harder for inmates to get legal help and stay connected with family.

By Betsy JolesDecember 27, 2016 9:30 am|

Bill Pope knows a thing or two about prison phones. He’s the president of NCIC, a service provider for phones in Texas detention centers. He also knows about how the phones affect lives.

Inmates in Texas prisons and jails use pay phones every day. It’s hard to understate the importance of pay phones when they’re inmates’ only line to the outside world.

Take what someone told Pope’s son while he was making repairs:

“One of the inmates told him last week, he says ‘Man you’re not just fixing a broken phone, you’re fixing broken hearts’ He said that it’s his way to communicate with his family.”

Inmates at all security levels have pay phone access. But for many, it comes down to how much it costs to make a call. Texas prison phone providers have a history of price gouging. That started in the 1990s when private companies took over running the phones. Pope says it persists today.

“The pricing had gotten fairly abusive,” Pope says. “There was actually one company in Texas that was charging $14.99 per call.”

Douglas Smith has seen the issue from the inside – as an inmate himself and now as an analyst at the policy group the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

Smith says high phone rates can make it harder for inmates to get legal help. And for some people, a phone call can be the difference between probation and accepting a plea that could lead to jail time.

“The only reason they’re in county jail is because they cannot afford a bond to get out,” Smith says. “If they can’t afford to pay a bond, how are they going to afford phone calls?”

The Federal Communications Commission has been trying to cap rates for inmate calls for years. But the U.S. Court of Appeals has put the FCC’s recent attempts to regulate interstate phone rates on hold.

Mignon Zezqueaux’s son Ghabriel has been in a prison west of San Antonio since 2012.

“The rates were supposed to go down but we haven’t seen any decreases in that at all,” Zezqueaux says.

For those four years, Zezqueaux has paid $25 for every 20-minute call with her son. She says she can only afford to make three calls a month at those prices.

Angela Brown underwent the same financial stress when her boyfriend was incarcerated while she was pregnant.

“When a loved one goes to jail, it’s not only just them going to jail, you kind of feel like you’re going with them,” Brown says. “I wouldn’t wish it on my own enemy. That alone was so stressful.”

Brown says making a call was about more than just touching base – it was relieving some of that stress on both sides of the line.

“My daughter’s at home asking ‘Where is Daddy?’ or ‘Can we talk to him?,’ or ‘Can we call,’” she says. “Ten to 15 minutes was helping him stay sane.”

Studies show maintaining a family connection actually reduces recidivism rates. But for phones to make a difference, Zezqueaux says people need to be able to afford to stay connected.

“Having phone privileges is just that, it’s a privilege,” she says. “We have to keep pushing.”

The FCC’s updated rate regulations await a decision from the court. Zezqueaux and others will be watching.