For the nearly two million people incarcerated in the US, telephones can be a lifeline. Research shows frequent phone calls to family members increase jail safety, promote positive mental health outcomes, and help maintain connections with loved ones.
Yet calling home is incredibly expensive. Telecommunications companies implement high one-time fees, processing fees, and phone call rates to create a wider profit margin. At many jails and prisons, this means phone calls cost $50 to 100 every month. With two-thirds of people in jail reporting their annual income as less than $12,000 before arrest, the cost is unfeasible.
Last year, Congress passed a law requiring the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to ensure “just and reasonable” rates and charges for calling devices in correctional institutions. Yet, some prison policies still limit incarcerated people from making low-cost calls. Additional policies can help break down these barriers and ensure people in correctional facilities can afford to call their children and families at home.
The benefits of phone calls in prisons and jails
Being separated from family can be difficult, and research shows being able to make phone calls while incarcerated benefits all parties involved.
- Benefits for children of incarcerated parents. Positive parent-child connections help with mental and physical development in children and support their learning as adolescents. One study found 83 percent of the interviewed children of incarcerated parents reported staying in contact with their incarcerated parent (PDF) (56 percent by phone calls and videos). They reported success in their personal and professional lives as a result of their positive relationship with their incarcerated parent.
- Benefits for incarcerated family members. Frequent calls promote parent-child relationships, resulting in parents expressing better self-esteem as an active parent and displaying better behavior while in prison. Consistent phone calls with family members have also been shown to reduce anxiety and depression among incarcerated people.
- Benefits for correctional institutions and society. Within the first five years of release, incarcerated people with strong family connections are 25 percent more likely to cease criminal activity, helping to reduce jail populations and ease the burden on correctional staff.
Legislation protecting low-cost correctional communications
In recognition of the benefits, several states have passed protections to lower calling costs. New York, Ohio, and Rhode Island outlawed site commissions for correctional facilities and technology communication services, which has resulted in lower-cost phone calls that are feasible for most people. California, Colorado, Connecticut, and Minnesota have taken a further step, making prison calls free of charge.
Last year, Congress passed the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act of 2022 on the federal level, which both requires the FCC to cap the cost of in-state phone calls by using industry-wide average cost comparisons and delineates regulating video calling costs to be within the FCC’s jurisdiction. Upon its implementation in 2024, this act could reduce costs to a fraction of what they are today. Out-of-state calls were already capped around 21 to 25 cents per minute, marking a life-changing support for people in federal prison, many of whom are placed out of state.
Breaking down additional barriers to phone calls for incarcerated people
Despite this law, communication barriers still exist inside correctional facilities. Federal and state policymakers can consider the following actions to break down barriers:
- Fund research on the spatial distance of incarcerated people from their county of release and their ability to stay in contact with loved ones. In August 2000, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report that explored the effects of distance between incarcerated parents and their children, marking the agency’s first research on the topic. A 2015 report found that incarcerated people living 100 to 600 miles away from home were more likely to engage in misconduct than people who were placed fewer than 100 miles away. This was especially true of people living 300 to 350 miles away and of younger people.
Additional research that explores the effects on families can help inform policies that further protect and add to the evidence base on the importance of proximity and low-cost contact.
- Offer free phone calls for families with low incomes. Under the CARES Act, the Bureau of Prisons allowed incarcerated people to conduct no-charge visitation via video and phone during the pandemic. The language of the act acknowledged that the benefits of the ruling outweighed the cost. Specifically, maintaining some form of visitation ensured good order, and waiving costs was a compassionate response to the emergency.
A few states have implemented a free-call program in some of their facilities. California’s department of corrections and rehabilitation stated putting this program forward to help incarcerated people “build and maintain relationships that are critical to achieving their rehabilitative goals.” Others can follow suit.
Given that 62 percent of parents incarcerated in federal prisons and 84 percent of parents in state facilities live more than 100 miles from their prior homes, additional policies that increase access could make a significant difference in thousands of people’s lives.