In Oklahoma, state prisoners and their families pay just under 20 cents per minute for phone calls, the nation’s ninth-highest rate as of 2019, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. (Photo by Alexander Jawfox on Unsplash) For seven years of her childhood, Illinois native Wandjell Reneice relied on prepaid phone calls to keep in touch
In Oklahoma, state prisoners and their families pay just under 20 cents per minute for phone calls, the nation’s ninth-highest rate as of 2019, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. (Photo by Alexander Jawfox on Unsplash)
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 barriers 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.
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 reentering 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. State and local corrections departments that contract with the companies typically receive a percentage commission on each call.
Following court rulings, 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, says it has increased efforts to bring call rates down.
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 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.”
Wanda Bertram, a communications strategist with the Prison Policy Initiative, said state officials often argue that commissions are necessary to operate substance abuse and mental health programs or provide specific prisoner medical care. But she added 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,” she 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 and other advocates, funded through a grant from the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center, launched a three-year effort to reduce prison call rates throughout Illinois. 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.
Humanizing the issue was a priority. Reneice, who spoke to lawmakers in committee hearings, emphasized how high costs negatively impacted her relationship with her parents.
State Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana, eventually sponsored legislation that reduced phone call rates to 7 cents per minute. The bill received unanimous support in the House and Senate and was signed into law in 2016.
Dolinar said 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.”
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 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.
Video visitation also has emerged as another revenue source. Beginning as soon as this summer, Oklahoma prisoners will be able to make 20-minute video calls for $5.95.
“With the tablets and the video calls, all it is (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.”
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. 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.”
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that produces in-depth and investigative content on a wide range of issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to oklahomawatch.org.