These days, most of us are staying in touch with our loved ones by phone calls or video chats. A single phone call costs us nearly nothing, a video chat requires only a Wi-Fi connection.
But for millions of people, it isn’t so easy. As jails and prisons suspend in-person visits, most incarcerated people and their families are paying outrageously high costs to simply stay connected. The Federal Bureau of Prisons just made voice and video visitation free in its 122 prisons, and while noteworthy, this isn’t enough to ensure that the majority of families can remain in touch at such a crucial time. The majority of the incarcerated population, upwards of 1.7 million people, are in state prisons and local jails, where they will probably face excessive fees to call home. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) needs to push prison phone companies to lower their rates so every family can maintain a connection during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Incarcerated people, their families and other allies have been fighting for phone justice for years, but a pandemic like COVID-19 reminds us once again how cruel and unjust these exorbitant call rates are and why rate relief is needed immediately. Prison call rates can cost over $1 a minute and on average, an in-state phone call from jail costs three times as much as one from prison. The national average for a 15-minute call from jail is $5.74. Thanks to a helpful tool from the Prison Policy Institute, I know that by the time it takes you to read this op-ed, a call from New York’s Allegheny County Jail for this amount of time would cost about $7.50, just shy of New York’s tipped wage for a single hour of work.