Captive Audience: The high cost of inmate phone calls

Captive Audience: The high cost of inmate phone calls
FCC may cap fees and commissions for inmates phone calls. (Source: WECT)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - After years of complaints about the high cost of making phone from jails and prisons, the Federal Communications Commission is looking to rein in inmate phone rates. It's an industry that generates more than $1 billion a year, and the private phone companies literally have a captive audience.

It costs $9 for an inmate in the New Hanover County Jail to make a collect call. If an inmate's family and friends want to set up a pre-paid account for phone calls - there's a $7 processing fee and an additional $4 fee for cell phones. That's on top of the $1.57 charge for a ten minute phone call.

Securus, the private phone company that manages the jail phone system, makes a profit on these calls, but we found out the county also gets a 49 percent commission.

At first glance, you may not care about the plight of people who have broken the law. But keep in mind, these inmates have yet to be convicted of the crimes they're accused of, and are locked up for months, and even years in some cases, awaiting trial.

Jacob Arthur, 19, has been sitting in the New Hanover County jail since he was 17. He says the phone is his primary means of contact with his mother, wife and children while he awaits trial on a string of burglary and auto theft charges,

"I know my mother's spent $900 - $1,000 just on the phone," Arthur told us from behind a glass wall in the jail's visitors' area. "And that's just outrageous. And my mother, she's a single mother, got four children, just trying to help me the best she can, and the phone prices are so much I barely get canteen now because of the prices."

Inmates and their families don't get to choose between carriers. The New Hanover County jail has an exclusive contract with Securus, the same company used by all the county jails in our area.

Published reports list the private company as one of the biggest players in the $1.2 billion a year prison phone industry. The amount of money companies and counties are making off inmates and their families has prompted inmates' rights advocates to speak out.

"The jails operating as a for-profit business…that's not what they are there for," said New Hanover County Public Defender Jennifer Harjo. She noted that inmates and their families are often poor and that these high phone costs are especially difficult for them to afford.

In our area, the commissions jails make off the phone system vary widely, from 12 percent in Bladen County to a 55 percent commission in Columbus County. Brunswick County makes a 38 percent commission. We are still waiting to hear back from Pender County.

In New Hanover County, the money goes into the county's general fund. In many surrounding counties, profits from the phones are used to cover expenses for inmates who are indigent, but it does drive up the cost for all inmates who make phone calls.

After years of complaints about unreasonably high phone rates in prisons and jails, the FCC is expected to make a decision soon about possibly capping in-state phone rates, limiting set-up fees, and even eliminating the commissions jails receive from the private phone companies.

The potential changes are not sitting well with the North Carolina Sheriff's Association or New Hanover County Sheriff's officials, who say the profits they make on the phones don't come close to covering the $80 a day it costs to house an inmate.

"If you want to sit down and make a phone call, somebody's got to pay the bill, and it can't be the taxpayers always paying the bill," Brewer said.

If they lose the income stream they make from inmate's phone calls, counties all over the country may decide to discontinue phone service for inmates after they've been booked into the jail.

"Providing a phone service for an inmate to call anybody that they want to is a privilege," Brewer said of the laws pertaining to inmate communication rights. "It is not something that we absolutely must provide."

Besides the phone system hardware, there's a manpower expense for the prison phone service. Inmate phone communication is monitored and recorded, and the phone charges help cover those costs.

It's too soon to tell how many sheriff's offices would eliminate phone privileges if the FCC eliminates their commissions, but relatives of inmates tell us losing phone contact with their loved ones on the inside would be even worse than paying the sky high phone rates.

"It's good for the both of us to keep our communications open," said Chris Riener, whose stepson is an inmate in the NHC Jail. "I think it helps him with his time, just ease it a little better. Just contact with the outside world and people that love him."

In fact, the FCC says that regular contact between inmates and their loved ones has been proven to significantly drop the rate or recidivism.

Still, the FCC's concern is keeping phone rates reasonable. They say it's up to the individual sheriff's departments to decide whether they'll continue phone service if rates and commissions are cut.

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