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Pen Pals

Phone Calls from Jail Are Criminally Expensive

The FCC has finally put a cap on how much inmates can be charged for out-of-state calls, which is gonna provide some relief for prisoners and their families who were getting robbed blind by predatory companies like Global Tel Link.

Photo via Flickr user KOMUNews

Sometimes phones are a pain in the dick even in the real world. I remember when cell phones turned into a necessity and you could no longer fall off the grid every day just by leaving the house—I miss being able to have that freedom. People wanted to be able to connect with each other whenever they desire, and that turned into everyone being forced to be available to everyone 24/7. Walk down the street sometime and count how many people are staring at their little screens.


Not having your cell phone is such a vicious bitch when you’re locked up. Maybe it wouldn’t have been as bad 15 years ago, but now we’re so used to interacting all the time that inmates go crazy when they can’t even text their people. Dummies in the last county jail I was at did something they called “texting”—they would call someone collect then say something megaquick when the operator asked for their name, and the person on the other end would do the same thing. They’d go back and forth like this for an hour without being charged a penny, but they’d waste 50 minutes of that hour listening to recordings and pressing buttons. Meanwhile we had people who really wanted to use the pay phone waiting while these jerk-offs “texted.”

The reason the texters did that was phone calls from jails and prisons are so insanely expensive, it’s practically criminal—some folks have paid $17 for a measly 15-minute call. A couple weeks ago the FCC finally did the right thing and put a cap on how much inmates can be charged for out-of-state calls by the private carriers who rob 'em blind. That’s important, 'cause people in prison really have no choice but to pay whatever those predators charge, unless they want to wither away in the clink-clink without talking to anyone they know.

There have been some reforms at the local level before this—in New York they changed the prices back in February 2010 to be more affordable. It actually made things harder in some ways ‘cause now almost everyone can afford to call people, so the phone lines backed the fuck up, but overall, clearly it was a very positive move.


The worst problems I encountered were in the county jail. What Saratoga County used to do and Westchester County still does is 100 percent foul and disgusting. This god-awful company, Global Tel Link, ran things at Westchester and absolutely slayed people’s savings. I talked to a few guys fighting their cases for close to a year who had spent in the ballpark of $10,000 on phone calls. If you really use the phone for business reasons or your people just miss you and you’re on the phone an hour a day, which isn’t that crazy, you’re going to spend at least $200 a week. The real motherfucker is the connection fee, which costs you almost $3 every time you dial a number. You’d be better off rarely calling but talking for a long time when you do, but they fuck you there, too—they limit your calls to 20 minutes. Not that inmates respect that rule; after their time runs out, instead of passing the phone off to the next dude, they just call again and getting another “click.” Also, the phones suck and hang up all the time, so you often need to call again and pay another $3 connection fee.

Global Tel Link also charges you to add money to your account—for every $25 they take $5. I remember it cost me 28 cents a minute for local calls, but even my girl’s number in nearby New York City was 40 cents a minute and my parents’ landline in Arizona was nearly a dollar a minute. Before I learned my lesson I called my parents three times and talked to them for a few minutes each time, and that cost $25. It’s insane. I didn’t need to talk to my girl and parents, but it was really helpful sometimes, and forcing inmates to pay so much money to talk to someone who’s not a criminal or a prison guard seems unnecessarily cruel. Who has an extra $200 to simply stay in touch with their loved ones?


Some states get a percentage of the profits made off of these pricey phone calls, and therefore have incentive to grant contracts to companies that charge more. It’s pretty obvious how awful this setup is, and it’s good that the FCC has finally decided to step in. The only problem is that the new rule only affects interstate calls, I guess because they don’t have any authority over local calls, which are still fiendishly expensive.

In Orange is the New Black, the great Netflix series about prison, you’ll notice that every time the main character uses the phone someone is next to her crying. Inmates call the phone the “stress box” and we’ve got a love/hate relationship with it. We love hearing real people’s voices, but usually we receive bad news on the phone as well, and we’re so damn powerless that we’re often overflowing with frustration. It’s extremely dong-blasted difficult to maintain a healthy relationship with anyone, especially your kids, when you’re locked up, but it’s even more impossible when it’s basically a dollar a minute to talk to them. You better be saying some important shit, 'cause you don’t even have a job to pay for the charges anymore. Your people are pissed you’re locked up, and, on top of that, now you’re costing them a testicle and a twat every time you call them to handle shit (a.k.a. ask them for more stuff). You end up not having any time or money for small talk, and it doesn’t take long for your people to question why exactly it is that they love you.

Most people in prison and jail aren’t exactly rich in the first place, and charging them so much for calls is kicking them while they’re down. It’s unconscionable. That’s why lots of people who get locked up say, “Fuck that fuckin’ stress box… I’m staying off the phone this time around.” It really does drive people crazy… We often hear that we’re being cheated on, that our daughters are being whores, our wives are leaving us, that our moms are sick, or maybe our lawyer even tells us that the DA won’t budge on a big number, and all the while we’re impotent, stuck behind bars. Let’s just hope that in the future we stop getting ripped off while we get our hearts ripped out.

Bert Burykill is the pseudonym of our prison correspondent, who has spent time in a number of prisons in New York State. He tweets here.

Previously: ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Through the Eyes of an Ex-Con