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America Incarcerated

How the Expensive, Shady Process of Making a Phone Call from Behind Bars Is Finally Changing

Inmates are excited about the plan to impose new caps on how much it costs to call their loved ones.

Photo via Flickr user Andrew Bardwell

When I was incarcerated in the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) from 1993 to 2014, I was regularly getting hit with insane phone rates while calling home. I remember it was so bad that my parents once asked me nicely not to call anymore—the collect call rate from inside was just too high.

Now the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is looking into imposing new rules on the $1.2 billion phone industry that services America's correctional facilities. The federal agency will vote later this month on a plan that would cap the rate for most calls at federal and state prisons at 11 cents a minute, and limit the local jail rate to between 14 and 22 cents a minute. (The proposed changes come after the agency first began to regulate the price of prison and jail calls in 2013.)


Current and former denizens of the sprawling prison-industrial complex are excited about saving some cash, which isn't exactly easy to come up with behind bars.

"I lived through the reality of not being able to talk to my wife and kids as much as I wanted to because the calls were too expensive," Paul Wright, a former Washington state inmate who's been making noise for years on this issue with his advocacy group Human Rights Defense Center, tells VICE. "Prison phone rates started to climb in the early 1990s based on the kickbacks that telecoms were paying to the prisons and jails to get these contracts. It got to the point where people were paying up to $20-25 for a 15-minute phone call."

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Inmates make considerably less than minimum wage from their prison jobs, which means calling home or using the phone is often a luxury, with phone calls now costing 23 cents a minute in the federal system. Each prisoner is allotted 300 minutes of phone time, so using it all would cost a federal inmated $69 a month.

Often, the people who bear the burden are the family members of the incarcerated.

"It costs me almost 70 dollars a month to talk to my girl and my family," John Broman, a 36-year-old Pittsburgh native serving a 16-and-a-half-year sentence for bank robbery, tells VICE from federal prison in West Virginia. "That money comes from my family and from my job. I get $100 a month for my jobs, which is considered big bucks in here, and $100 from my family."


By prison standards, Broman is living like a king. He has money for the phone, email, commissary and songs for his MP3 player. In my experience, most prisoners get by on less than $25 a month—if that. Still, $70 out of $200 is a big chunk—about a third of his income just to communicate.

When your phone minutes are expensive and precious, you learn to cherish them.

"I'm one of the lucky ones that has a family to send money and has a good job. There's dudes in here that have to choose between talking to their kids or buying soap," Broman says.

A ridiculous predicament, you might say, but one that I recall well. When I was in, I would regularly buy fellow prisoners hygiene items around Christmas or their children's birthdays. The small amount of money didn't mean much to me, as I received enough from my parents and wife to meet my basic needs, use the phone, practice journalism, and eat well.

These days, many inmates—especially in lower-security facilities—have cell phones and circumvent the prison phone industry entirely. But those who rely on it have been flummoxed by the pricing scheme.

"It's bad enough a person has to buy toiletries and the like to survive in prison, plus another $69 a month just to make these calls," Andre Hall, a 53-year-old from Newark, New Jersey, housed at the federal prison camp in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, tells VICE. "I don't know why it costs so much to make calls, but you can be sure someone somewhere is living pretty good off of someone else's misery. I think that's just the way life goes."


Watch the VICE HBO documentary on America's incarceration system, featuring President Barack Obama's first-ever visit to a federal prison:

I remember the phones being hectic during post week when money for everyone's prison job would be deposited in their accounts. There'd be long lines for the four phones that were in the entrance way of every prison unit, but after a couple of days, the phones would be idle most of the time because the majority of prisoners couldn't afford it. In fact, some prisoners sold their minutes.

Travis Robetor, an upstate New York native who was 31 when he went in and did seven years for a cocaine conspiracy, says he'd use his own 300 minutes and then buy more off other prisoners. But using two accounts can spell trouble if you aren't careful, according to inmates who say there's often voice recognition technology in place on prison phones.

"If someone is trying to engage in illegal activity, they may use someone else's call to avoid detection. Staff do monitor and record each call," says Robert Rosso, a 45-year-old Californian (and VICE contributor) doing life at a federal prison in Indiana for a meth conspiracy.

I saw lots of inmates get incident reports for using other prisoners' phone accounts. With the high costs, limited minutes, and severe restrictions, using the phone was like a trap for the incarcerated. New technology may be changing the landscape of communication across America, and even in some jails and prisons, but for those who rely on the official prison phone system, that the federal government is finally paying attention is no small thing.

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