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With Prison Visitation Suspended Due To COVID-19, Families Of Incarcerated People Say Phone Calls Should Be Free

Telecommunications companies that serve prisons and jails, like Securus Technologies and Global Tel Link, are offering a limited number of free calls, but families say it’s not enough.

Photo illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Getty Images.

As the COVID-19 pandemic prompted prisons and jails to suspend visits, the Florida Department of Corrections announced a partnership in mid-March with Securus Technologies, and its subsidiary, JPay, to offer a limited number of free calls, emails, and video visits. Until April 5, incarcerated people in Florida can get two free 15-minute phone calls, four email “stamps,” and one video visit per week. Once an incarcerated person uses the free services, however, individual services revert to their standard price: 14 cents per minute for a non-local phone call, 36 to 44 cents for a stamp, and $2.95 for a 15-minute video call.

For Ashley Williams, a disabled single mother in Florida who has a brother, cousin, and several friends incarcerated in prisons across the state, the Department of Corrections’s move provided little relief. She was recently temporarily laid off from her job at a movie theater chain, where she made $9 an hour, and her sole source of income for the next six weeks is $799 in monthly disability benefits. Williams worries that the pandemic might last for months, leaving her unable to afford to maintain the $15 per week she puts on her Securus account. It’s an anxious prospect in a state that has among the highest number of deaths in prison in the country. And COVID-19 has now entered its prison system: As of April 1, the Department of Corrections said twelve employees at correctional facilities across the state had tested positive for the virus.

“It’s a total rip-off,” Williams told The Appeal. “[Phone calls] should be free being that this is a crisis going on right now.”

For an incarcerated person concerned about family during a pandemic, 15 minutes is barely enough time to communicate, said Debra Bennett, an organizer with the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls who served nearly 20 years in  Florida prisons. “You can’t ask enough questions to get all the answers you need to know,” she said. “By the time you squeeze in the ‘I love yous’ and ‘I miss yous,’ your time’s up.”

As COVID-19 spreads, Securus is making offers across the country similar to its arrangement with the Florida Department of Corrections. But the company’s offers have not been uniform: in Pennsylvania, Securus is providing five 15-minute phone calls per week, according to a state Department of Corrections spokesperson. In Georgia, Securus is only offering one 15-minute phone call and two email credits, according to a state Department of Corrections press release

Securus has such a strong hand in dictating terms to its clients because it is one of the largest companies in the billion-dollar industry of providing telecommunications to prisons and jails. Its main competitor is Global Tel Link, and over the last few decades the two companies have absorbed an estimated 85 percent of the industry by consolidating smaller competitors and offering cash-strapped prisons and jails millions of dollars in commission on the profits on phone calls, messages, and money transfers. 

These local agreements have resulted in uneven COVID-19 era offers to prisons and jails, even though the technology and cost of maintenance is roughly the same, noted Josh Hoe, a policy analyst for Safe & Just Michigan. In Utah, CenturyLinkis providing 10 free 15-minute phone calls per week, the most time in the country. But in Wisconsin, CenturyLink is only offering two 15-minute calls. 

In Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington, GTL offered to pay for two five-minute phone calls per week through mid-April. In California, the corrections department and GTL offered two days—March 19 and March 26—where incarcerated people could make free calls with no limit on the number of calls, resulting in 1.3 million minutes of phone time on the first day alone. “This was likely the highest call volume in the history of the department,” Dana Simas, the department spokesperson, wrote in an email to The Appeal. The Oregon Department of Corrections, where GTL is offering two free 5-minute phone calls per week—significantly less time than competitors like Securus—praised the company “for this act of understanding, support, and compassion during this difficult time.”

“GTL is working closely with our facility customers on a daily basis as they build customized solutions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Randall Brown, GTL’s director of communication, wrote in an email to The Appeal. 

Some states are dipping into their commissions to cover a portion of the cost of calls during the pandemic. In Arkansas, which has some of the priciest calls in the country, the DOC told Securus it was going to stop collecting a 5 cent commission on the cost of a call, said communications director Dina Tyler. The Department of Corrections’s move reduces the per-minute price from 20 cents to 15. And the price of a 30-minute video call in state prisons was cut from $12.99 to $2.50. “This was just something we wanted to do,” Tyler told The Appeal. 

Laura Berry, an organizer for grassroots prison reform group decARcerate, told The Appeal that video calls remain out of reach for many families. “Only people who have modern technology” can use video visits, said Berry, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1985 when she was 17 and later released under Miller v. Alabama. “For the families on fixed income, they’re paying almost as much for a 15-minute call as the families with more monetary means who are getting a video visit.” 

Advocates and incarcerated people say that instead of relying on companies like Securus to cut prices, states should simply make calls free. “One of the results of jurisdictions contracting out the provisions of telecom services to a private company, [is that] it’s easier for them to say ‘well, our hands are tied, we can’t do anything about how families are treated,’” said Wanda Bertram, communications strategist for the Prison Policy Initiative. “But they do have the power.”

Williams says the cost of calls is not her only worry. She says that Securus’s poor service will also prevent her from staying in touch with her family. Her sister-in-law bought a tablet for her brother last year, so he could have access to Securus’s email system. But its screen is cracked, so he uses the sole kiosk in his dorm to use the email system, which is also often broken. Wlliams says she has no choice but to continue to use Securus because it’s still one of the only ways she can contact family. “I just want to make sure that my loved ones be OK.”