By: Macy Eldredge
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect views of the Journal, the William H. Bowen School of Law, or UA Little Rock.
Arkansas ranks as one of the most expensive states for prison phone calls for inmates and their families. Incarcerated people typically cannot choose their calling provider, leading to unreasonably high costs to inmate consumers. In an age where a phone call can be made over the internet for free, prisons and jails charge mammoth rates to inmates through their service providers for a portion of the spoils.
While a phone call to the local Public Defender’s office may be free, defendants with private attorneys must pay to contact their lawyer. Inmates must pay to call their families and vice versa. The average cost of a 15 minute in-state phone call from a jail in Arkansas is $14.49, while the highest cost tops out at $24.82. This cost is 3 times higher than the state prison’s rate for a 15-minute phone call. In 2019, $2,504,327.05 in kickbacks were paid by the only provider, Securus, to the Arkansas Department of Correction, comprising 74-80% of all call costs.
Phone providers add insult to injury by charging consumers hidden fees on top of their high price-per-minute scheme. These fees are incredibly significant, adding up to 38% of the $1 billion spent each year on calls from correctional facilities nationally. Other private companies have gotten into the scheme by charging additional fees to send payments to inmates. Indigent inmates are more likely to be incarcerated and more likely to be unbanked or underbanked, so they rely on money transfers through companies like WesternUnion and Moneygram in order to make phone calls. For example, Pulaski County Detention Center uses Telmate as their chosen provider. Moneygram charges a flat $6.99 fee to send a $25 payment to Telmate, further exploiting the low-income population that relies on services like Moneygram to receive money.
The FCC caps interstate calls from prisons and jails at 21 cents/minute for debit/prepaid calls and 25 cents a minute for collect calls. However, there are no rate caps for in-state long distance, local, or international calls. This is a serious problem because in-state calls account for 92% of all domestic calls in the prison and jail phone market. While minor advances have been made in lowering costs in the state-run prisons, county- and city-run jails are largely unregulated in their ability to price gouge their inmates. Without FCC intervention, price gouging ensues to the benefit of providers, jails and prisons, and third-party companies.
This price gouging can have a detrimental effect on the local jail population, of which only a quarter have been convicted, much less sentenced. In the COVID-19 pandemic world, we are seeing more and more people under pretrial detention for not months, but years, awaiting the pendency of their trials; all while their constitutional right to a speedy trial is tolled. This delay compounds issues for Arkansas’s indigent population, who are unable to post bail and run the risk of losing their source of income, housing, or even custody of their children.
Access to phone calls are imperative for prisoners’ mental health and can help fight recidivism–keeping the inmates tied-into their families and communities on the outside. Research has shown that close and positive family relationships during incarceration “reduce recidivism, improve an individual’s likelihood of finding and keeping a job after prison, and ease the harm to family members separated from their loved ones.” Especially in times when face-to-face communication is not possible, the use of phone calls and video-conferencing should be expanded, accessible, and encouraged.
Even when inmates are able to afford the high cost of these calls, their conversations are capped by a time limit and may be recorded and even used against them as evidence in their future trial(s). The jail’s interest in deterring ongoing criminal activity from within its walls through the use of the phone pales in comparison to the deprivation of rights being experienced by legally innocent pretrial detainees. High phone call prices encourage contraband cell phones in the jails and prisons. The Arkansas Department of Correction (ADC) confiscated over 925 cell phones in 2020. There has been research that shows that smuggled prison cell phones are common in Arkansas, where there is a correlation between low annual wages for correctional officers/jailers and amount of cell phones confiscated. Job vacancies in the ADC are at record highs, while Departments of Corrections nationwide have had difficulty recruiting during the pandemic.
To combat this problem, jails as well as prisons must be scrutinized and regulated. Kickbacks for corrections facilities need to be prohibited. Exorbitant fees should be prohibited and as a policy consideration, Arkansas should consider making phone calls free in jails and prisons. The Arkansas State Legislature should require that correctional contracts be negotiated depending on what is the best price for the inmate consumer.