Free phone calls from San Francisco and NY jails demonstrate ‘status quo bias’
Beginning next week, people locked up in San Francisco will be able to call their loved ones for free. Last year, people in the city’s jails spent $1.7 million on phone calls and commissary, of which half a million went to GTL, a major corrections telecommunication company. For Mayor London Breed, who introduced the provision in the San Francisco budget, jail calls are personal: Her brother is incarcerated. “It’s something that has never sat well with me, from personal experience of the collect calls, and the amount of money that my grandma had to spend on our phone bill, and at times our phone getting cut off because we couldn’t pay the bill,” she said. “When people are in jail they should be able to remain connected to their family without being concerned about how much it will cost them or their loved ones.”
Last month, New York became the first city to offer free phone calls from jail. Until then, another corrections telecommunications behemoth, Securus Technologies, was not only charging exorbitant fees per minute, but also found creative ways to extract more money from low-income people desperate to talk to one another. It allowed a maximum of $50 on a prepaid account at any given time, with a $3 fee each time more money is deposited. In essence, Securus wasn’t simply charging people for the privilege to talk to loved ones, it was charging for the privilege of paying to do so.
There are plenty of compelling reasons to support efforts to make jail phone calls free, starting with the allegation that companies like GTL and Securus commodify incarceration. According to the nonprofit group Worth Rises, correctional telecommunications is a $1.2 billion industry nationwide that profits from the most economically disadvantaged: 1 in 3 families can’t pay the cost to stay connected to their loved ones in prison. Studies indicate that incarcerated people with stronger ties to the community fare better when they get out and are less likely to recidivate. And morally, it seems unjustifiable to deprive certain children of contact with their parents, if those children happen to be poor and the parent happens to be incarcerated. Nor is it particularly costly for cities to make phone calls free. The cost of doing so at Rikers, for example, represented such a small portion of the city’s $1.4 billion correctional budget that one City Council member likened it to a “rounding error.”
Even politicians who have not supported these efforts find it hard to justify their position. In Connecticut, where a bill that would make all calls from prison free is on hold until the next legislative session, a state representative who did not support the bill said “if people only knew that the state of Connecticut is profiting from communications between family members and those that are incarcerated—I think that is absolutely horrible.”
But many who oppose free phone calls see it as a giveaway of sorts, a benefit bestowed on people they see as undeserving. The New York Post took such a position when the New York City reform was announced. “City jailbirds no longer have to pay to make calls from the slammer—in a move that will cost taxpayers $8 million a year,” wrote Julia Marsh and Bruce Golding, who called it a “free phone-a-thon” allowing people to “yak away to their hearts’ content.” They also noted that “even dangerous prisoners locked up in solitary confinement get a single, daily call of up to 15 minutes.”
But it’s not a giveaway, it’s a return. Calls from prisons and jails used to be free, or at least the same price as calls on the outside. This changed in the 1990s, with what Cornell professor Steven J. Jackson called “the rise … of a deeply inequitable pricing scheme that has seen the cost of inmate phone calls skyrocket, even as rates available to businesses and consumers on the outside world have fallen dramatically.” After the government broke up AT&T in an antitrust agreement, upstart phone providers “saw dollar signs in the bevy of new ‘customers’ waiting to be served,” writes Colin Lecher for The Verge.
“Providing communications to a literally captive audience was highly profitable, and as these companies grew, they popularized a new kind of contract with local governments,” Lecher writes. “These agreements hinged on an idea formally known as the ‘site commission contract,’ though critics often describe them using another word: kickback.” These companies offered to share their revenue with facility operators. “The result is a reverse-bidding system, in which the company that secures a contract isn’t the one offering the lowest price, but the one willing to share the highest percentage of its revenue.”
So free calls aren’t the aberration—the exorbitant ones are. If we were building a system from scratch, and there was a question of whether incarcerated people should be able to afford to communicate with their families, it seems likely that most people would agree they should. But somehow, when implementing this policy involves a change in the status quo, many treat it as an unfair giveaway. It’s an example of what psychologists and economists have called “status quo bias,” “the endowment effect,” or “loss aversion.”
We see such biases every time a reform is proposed. A New York state representative recently declared 2019 “The Year of the Criminal,” because of all the benefits he believed that people in the criminal legal system were set to receive. Assemblymember Will Barclay lamented that many of the reform bills “solely focus on assisting the criminal,” by doing things like limiting arrests on low-level charges. But mass arrests for low-level crimes, just like exorbitant fees for prison calls, have risen markedly over the last 30 years, part of the tough-on-crime movement. Most criminal reforms are not new benefits but simply attempts to chip away at draconian policies implemented over the past three decades. In Louisiana, likewise, recent reforms have given some people sentenced to die in prison a shot at parole. But even those reforms were simply a matter of turning back to previous policies: Until the 1970s, people sentenced to life in prison in Louisiana were presumptively paroled after 10 and a half years. Imagine, for a moment, proposing such a policy today.