Ending the Prison Pay Phone Scam Can Curb Recidivism Rates and Help Prison Reform

ByMaggie Jacobi

The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) receives nearly $75 million of taxpayer money every year to run large immigration detention centers across the United States. These and other private prisons across the country generate collective profits in the billions annually by engaging in price gouging behaviors and forcing inmates and their families to pay predatorily priced phone bills. If any progress in community re-entry programs is to be expected, this practice of prisons profiting from inmate phone calls must be made illegal.

Often labeled as the most profitable industry in America, private detention facilities are given free reign to profit from exploitation of inmate needs. Since the mid-1980s, an increasing percentage of these gains have been a direct result of kickbacks from prison phone contracts.  When private prison systems examine phone contract bids, they almost always choose to employ the company with the highest commission benefits and highest prices.

In the 43 states that allow commission kickbacks from prison phone service, private prisons cumulatively report profits of almost $200 million annually. This massive gain is a direct result of inmate exploitation. In a Georgia facility, the Corrections Corporation of America charges immigration detainees $5 a minute to make a phone call. These same inmates work like laborers in the Third World, making one dollar for a day of work. So, prisoners make collect calls from this center, leaving families with phone bills that can reach over a $100 in a week. Upwards of 35% of the profits from these calls go directly to CCA accounts. This behavior is far from isolated to CCA facilities (although the Corrections Corporation of America is the worst offender), as private state, city, and county prisons regularly report phone commission kickbacks in the millions.

If any progress in community re-entry programs is to be expected, prison profit from inmate phone calls must be made illegal. These phones are used for almost all communication with loved ones and the outside world, and at prices dictated by modern private prisons, even local calls are often out of the question. During their (frequently lengthy) stays in predatory private prisons, detainees commonly lose connections with family and friends. Such exploitive behavior produces thousands of isolated and out-of-touch inmates who are released from prison, only to return within a few years of release.

These high recidivism rates (by many counts the United States has the highest in the world) come as no shock to both system analysts and policy professionals, who have noted for decades the failure of the Justice Department to install effective connection programs between incarcerated prisoners and their families or communities.  

As long as predatory prison payphone pricing is legal, a smooth community re-entry will be nearly impossible, and without this crucial factor that defines successful prison systems in countries like Norway and Switzerland, both of which have some of the lowest recidivism rates in the world, the number of Americans incarcerated will continue to rise. Already, a full 1% of U.S. citizens are behind bars, and the United States now holds the shameful title of being the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. Statistics like these point to a blatant need for prison reform indicative of massive failures to uphold justice within American borders.  

Serious change is needed, but payphone pricing adjustments are a crucial place to start. By allowing prisoners access to their families and communities, released detainees will re-enter society with the more support, better coping skills, and ultimately more success in building a life and ending the cycle of incarceration.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons