For seven years of her childhood, Illinois native Wandjell Reneice relied on prepaid phone calls to keep in touch with her incarcerated parents.
One week she would talk to her mother, splitting conversation time with her younger brother and grandmother who cared for the siblings. A few weeks later the family would prioritize a 15-minute call to her father and the cycle would repeat.
Maintaining the relationships became progressively difficult. Rare in-person visits to a rural prison required months of planning and hours of driving. High fees emerged as a barrier to more frequent and lengthier calls.
“You can’t really have an in-depth conversation with your parent with like three minutes,” Reneice said. “It would go really fast, like ‘hey mom, love you so much, school’s going well, I’m doing well, here’s my little brother.’”
In 2008, a 15-minute prison phone call in Illinois cost $6.14, according to data compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative. Daily calls to each parent would have amounted to more than $4,400 annually. Families with an incarcerated member disproportionately struggle financially and often go into debt while supporting their loved one in prison.
Both of Reneice’s parents were released soon after she turned 15. At that point, she said she had gone through the hardest years of her adolescence and was accustomed to life on her own. Reconnecting and rebuilding the relationships took considerable time and effort.
“Not having that connecting piece by talking on the phone, it was kind of like well, where do we start?” she said. “Do we pick up our conversations with what we were talking about a gazillion years ago? We don’t really know each other anymore and I don’t know how to communicate with you.”
With varying success, activists in recent years have pushed states and the federal government to cap the cost of prison and jail phone calls and make communication more accessible to prisoners and their families. In Oklahoma, state prisoners and their families pay just under 20 cents per minute for calls, the nation’s ninth highest rate as of 2019, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
In addition to keeping families better connected, studies show a public safety benefit to reducing prison phone call rates. Incarcerated people who maintain contact with the outside world are less likely to commit new crimes upon re-entering society. Family and friends can help a formerly incarcerated person find housing and employment.
Advocates argue that prison communications companies, namely Securus and Global Tel Link, have taken advantage of minimal government regulation and charged above-market value rates for phone calls in many states since the 1990s. State and local corrections departments that contract with the companies typically receive a percentage commission of each call, which may be used to pay for staff equipment, maintenance needs or prisoner programs.
Federal action on prison call rates arrived in October 2015, when the Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to cap all state and federal prison phone calls at 11 cents per minute. The order was short-lived.
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Ruling that the FCC overstepped its authority by regulating the cost of intrastate calls, a U.S. Appeals Court struck down the mandate in June 2017. Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter and former Oklahoma corrections director Joe Allbaugh praised the appeal court’s decision, saying revenue from intrastate calls is needed to fund prisoner treatment programs and monitor phone conversations.
Current federal law, caps phone calls from prisons at 25 cents per minute. State and local officials are free to set their own rates.
Following the appeal court’s decision, prison phone call rates have increasingly become a state and local issue, with lawmakers and corrections officials in several states, including Illinois, instituting their own price caps. Securus, which holds a contract with Oklahoma and is facing heightened public scrutiny over its business practices, says it has increased efforts to bring call rates down in parts of the country.
In 2016, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed House Bill 6200, which prohibited the state’s corrections department from charging more than 7 cents per minute for calls. The rate decrease took effect in January 2018.
The next January, the state corrections department negotiated an even lower rate, less than a penny per minute, with Securus. Illinois now has the cheapest prison phone calls in the U.S.
“People are very grateful,” said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, a nonprofit organization that monitors Illinois prisons. “There is clear evidence that it has increased communication between people who are incarcerated and their loved ones.”
Oklahoma corrections officials have the option to modify their current 10-year agreement with Securus and reduce call rates.
In a February amendment to its service agreement, Securus clarified that it could lower rates if Oklahoma corrections officials want to forgo commission payments. Under its current contract, Securus pays the state a $3.5 million annual “site access fee.”
“If requested by ODOC, the parties will negotiate in good faith regarding an appropriate reduction to the applicable call rates,” the contract amendment reads.
A corrections department spokesman did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment on its Securus contract and how commission dollars are allocated. The agency did not respond to a written inquiry.
Wanda Bertram, communications strategist with the Prison Policy Initiative, said corrections officials often argue that commissions are necessary to operate substance abuse and mental health programs or provide specific prisoner medical care. Bertram said these important services should be funded differently.
“Even if you’re using that money to fund something specifically for the welfare of incarcerated people, you shouldn’t be making their families shoulder the cost of that,” Bertram said. “That’s a regressive tax in every sense of the word.”
How Illinois Did It
Outraged at the cost of phone calls at his local county jail, Illinois history professor and independent journalist Brian Dolinar decided to take action.
Dolinar and a group of advocates successfully pushed Champaign County Jail officials to renegotiate their service agreement and reduce phone call rates. He then turned his attention to the state prison system.
Funded through a grant from the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center, Dolinar led the Illinois Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, a three-year effort to reduce prison call rates throughout the state.
In conversations with lawmakers, Dolinar’s group highlighted the $12 million in annual commissions Illinois made through phone calls. He said several legislators likened the commissions to illegal kickbacks and were outraged the corrections department was generating that kind of revenue from prisoners’ family members.
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“We really beat up on IDOC for those commissions, and they made up some excuse that they were using this on hepatitis C treatment,” Dolinar said. “But I think that was most alarming to lawmakers, and that was really what really convinced them to renegotiate the contract.”
Humanizing the issue was also a priority. Reneice, who spoke to lawmakers in committee hearings, emphasized how high costs negatively impacted her relationship with her parents.
“When you come from the angle that there are family units like yours that are completely separated and they can’t even stay in contact with a basic phone call, it makes them think,” she said.
State Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana, sponsored legislation that reduced phone call rates to 7 cents per minute. The bill received overwhelming unanimous bipartisan support in the House and Senate and was signed into law in 2016.
Dolinar said Illinois is a prime example for how grassroots organizing works and other states could easily reduce their prison phone call rates.
“It’s just so apparent that in a big, populous state like Illinois, we can provide cheap phone calls,” he said. “And it’s not like Securus is going out of business or the IDOC is hurting.”
Unintended Consequences and Obstacles
After Illinois’ lower call rates were implemented, demand quickly surpassed what prison officials and Securus were prepared to handle. The corrections department’s move to lower the maximum call time from 30 to 20 minutes wasn’t enough to keep lines moving and tempers from flaring.
“There weren’t enough phones so Securus had to scramble,” Vollen-Katz said. “Because of COVID restrictions and different things it’s difficult to understand where we are now, but we had been urging the department to put more phones in because we had been hearing a lot about lines forming and fights happening over access to the phones.”
More calls also equate to more staff needed to monitor conversations for criminal activity. Additionally, advocates warn that prison communications companies are finding new ways to generate revenue and lowering call rates is not a cure for price gouging.
A growing number of states, including Oklahoma, are providing tablets to incarcerated people. For a fee, prisoners can use the modified Android devices to send messages and make video calls. Music, books, games, television shows and movies may also be purchased.
Prison communications companies often offer to distribute the tablets for free with the expectation that they’ll turn a profit on text messages and media purchases. After giving away more than 50,000 tablets to New York prisoners in 2018, Securus expected to generate $9 million in revenue over five years.
Prison communications companies Securus and GTL have been accused of charging inmates and families unreasonable fees for video calls, text messages and e-books.
“The reason the companies are hawking these products is because advocates like us are pushing states and the federal government to regulate the amount they can charge for prison phone calls,” Bertram from the Prison Policy Initiative said. “Under that kind of pressure, companies look for a different revenue source.”
Video visitation has emerged as another revenue source for prison communications companies. Beginning as soon as this summer, Oklahoma prisoners will be able to make a 20-minute video call for $5.95.
Prison video call rates aren’t regulated by most states or the federal government. According to a 2017 National Institute of Corrections report, many video visitation systems are poorly installed and plagued with poor video and audio quality.
In 2017, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., proposed the Video Visitation and Inmate Calling in Prisons Act, which would have set caps on rates service providers can charge and set minimum standards for video and audio quality. The bill stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“With the tablets and the video calls, all it is a moneymaker,” said Erica, an Oklahoma woman whose husband is incarcerated at the Joseph Harp Correctional Center in Lexington. She requested that her full name and her husband’s name not be published because he fears retaliation from prison staff.
“They make excuses that it’s going to help people who can’t travel and stuff,” she said, “but especially in the state of Oklahoma, we are so rural that a lot of people won’t have the connection to make video calls.”
‘I Would Be Able to Live More Comfortably’
Erica, who works full-time as a teacher and part-time at Amazon, doesn’t go out much. She estimates spending about $400 monthly on phone calls and commissary items for her incarcerated husband.
The frequent calls are necessary to maintain connection and discuss finances, family and legal issues, she said. The commissary money helps supplement a diet that advocates and prisoners say is not nourishing enough for adults.
“I don’t have a life out here,” she said. “People will say ‘you chose that,’ and yes I did, but he’s also a human being who deserves to eat.”
A significant phone rate reduction would free money to pay for monthly expenses like rent, utilities and groceries, Erica said. “I would be able to live a little bit more comfortably and not have to eat rice and beans as much.”
Also necessary, Erica said, is a permanent fix to constant poor call quality and connection issues. Oklahoma prisoner advocates say dropped calls have become more frequent and call quality has nosedived after Securus took over operations from Global Tel Link in August.
“I have called Securus and they keep blaming the prison, I’ve called the prison and they’re blaming Securus,” she said. “It’s just a constant runaround.”
Keaton Ross is a Report for America corps member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss