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Amid High Costs of Inmate Phone Calls, CA, NJ, RI Rates Are Cheapest

People who make phone calls from state prisons and local jails often get price-gouged, with reforms falling short in preventing telephone companies from exploiting incarcerated people, a new study found, reports News From The States.

As the cost of calls approaches zero outside the prison walls, incarcerated people are forced to pay charges few can afford, threatening their access to one of the most effective tools for rehabilitation and harmony behind bars — a connection to the outside, the Prison Policy Initiative said.

New Jersey came out on top of most states in the study, with jails charging up to 11 cents a minute for in-state calls (and 21 cents a minute out of state). Only California and Rhode Island’s in-state rates were cheaper, at seven and nine cents, respectively, while Michigan was the most expensive, at $1.05 a minute.

Still, places like Dallas and Travis counties in Texas and San Mateo County in California charge just one to two cents a minute, proving the possibility of much lower phone rates, said the study’s authors, Peter Wagner and Wanda Bertram. They also found that local jails typically charge more than state prisons.

A 15-minute phone call in the average New Jersey jail costs $1.05.

“While that might not sound like much, the costs add up: Regular calls with an incarcerated loved one over several months can easily add up to thousands of dollars, a cost that pushes many families nationally into debt,” Bertram said.

That $1.05 is also more than an entire day’s pay for some incarcerated people in New Jersey, who get puny paychecks for the jobs they work behind bars. New Jersey prisons typically pay inmates $1 to $3 a day, with a few jobs paying up to $7 daily — wages that haven’t risen in decades.

The Federal Communications Commission has made calls more affordable for incarcerated people through reforms like banning many fees associated with prepaid phone accounts and capping the costs of out-of-state calls from prisons and jails.

Some states have adopted other reforms. In New Jersey, legislators barred state prisons, local jails, and private correctional facilities from taking commissions from telecom providers or imposing surcharges for incarcerated people’s telephone usage.

Some telecom companies are evolving to add unregulated products, like video calling and electronic messaging, at unreasonable prices, the study says.

The study’s authors call on Congress to authorize the FCC to set “just and reasonable rates” for all calls made from correctional facilities. They also urge the FCC to regulate the cost of video calling from prisons and jails, which they described as “arbitrary and exploitative.”


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