Prisoners of Debt
This is the seventh in a series of stories reported jointly by Oklahoma Watch and KGOU Radio. The latest segments from KGOU reporter Kate Carlton Greer can be found at

Federal regulators will vote this month on whether to cap the fees that prisons and jails charge inmates and their family members for telephone calls.

The costs of such calls have provoked a backlash from prisoner-advocacy groups and others, who say the companies that provide phone services in prisons and jails, including in Oklahoma, are gouging customers. They say high rates, which can cost family members hundreds of dollars a month, lead to reduced contact between inmates and loved ones, eroding social bonds that help offenders re-enter society and stay out of prison.

Corrections and law enforcement officials have said because of tight budgets, they need the revenue from calls to operate jails and prisons and provide services to inmates.

On Wednesday, the Federal Communications Commission proposed to permanently cap in-state and out-of-state calls at $1.65 for a 15-minute call. The plan is on the agenda for commission’s Oct. 22 meeting.

The FCC has been considering the phone rates charged to prisoners and their families for years. The agency imposed interim caps on out-of-state caps in 2013 and later sought comment on permanent caps for all calls.

The rate caps offered by the proposal are:
• 11 cents per minute for debit or prepaid calls from state or from federal prisons.
• 14 cents per minute for debit or prepaid calls from jails with 1,000 or more inmates.
• 16 cents per minute for debit or prepaid calls from jails with 350 to 999 inmates.
• 22 cents per minute for debit or prepaid calls from jails with up to 349 inmates.

Rates for collect calls would be slightly higher in the first year, but would be phased down to those caps after a two-year transition period.

The proposal also would limit service charges to those who make payments by phone or Internet or through a live agent or request a paper bill, and it caps the fees. The regulations would ban flat-rate calling, which bills in 15-minute increments, regardless of the length of the actual call.

If the proposal passes, jails, prisons, and phone companies would have 90 days to implement the new regulations. The proposal is being presented by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.

Currently, for inmates in the Department of Corrections’ custody, a 15-minute phone call costs around $3, or about 20 cents per minute. The Corrections Department keeps $2.30. The agency expected to get $32 million over 10 years.

Jails also could lose revenue. Calls from Oklahoma County Jail, in effect, cost about 27 cents a minute for a 15-minute call: $2.80 to connect for four minutes, then 11 cents per minute for 15 additional minutes.

Corrections officials have warned that the loss of revenue from inmate phone calls could jeopardize jail funds and lead to fewer recreational and rehabilitation programs for inmates.

In a letter to the FCC in January, Corrections Director Robert Patton said the phone commissions were crucial to operations and taking those funds away would be “financially devastating” to the department.

In March 2014, Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel objected to the FCC’S move to cap pre-paid out-of-state calls, saying, “If this order is not stayed, our jail and many other jails will have no alternative but to eliminate the availability of these telephone calls.”

In a written statement, Commissioner Clyburn said the high phone call rates hit those who can least afford to pay and discourage family members from contacting incarcerated loved ones.

“If the ability to keep in touch is out of reach for the imprisoned,” Clyburn said, “then fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and sons and daughters will return to their communities as strangers, unable to reassimilate — and, for 75 percent of those released, it no doubt contributes to them being rearrested and sent back to prison within five years, continuing the vicious cycle of incarceration and ensuring that these communities remain impoverished.”

Support our publication

Every day we strive to produce journalism that matters — stories that strengthen accountability and transparency, provide value and resonate with readers like you.

This work is essential to a better-informed community and a healthy democracy. But it isn’t possible without your support.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.