Report Uncovers High Cost of Phone Calls at Local Jails Across U.S.

By Shani Saxon Feb 12, 2019

"State of Phone Justice," a new report released by Prison Policy Initiative, reveals the exorbitant cost of phone calls for people being held pretrial in more than 1,800 jails across the United States. The 50 state report finds county and city jails charge incarcerated people $1 per minute, and sometimes more, for each phone call to loved ones and to legal representation. According to the findings, this rate is significantly higher than those found in state prisons.

"High phone rates impact everyone in jail, but those worst affected are people detained pretrial because they cannot afford bail," says report co-author Alexi Jones in a statement. "When someone has to organize their defense from jail, the cost of phone calls becomes extremely limiting, and that ultimately makes our justice system less fair."

The system essentially punishes people who have not yet been convicted of a crime. As the report states, "Charging pretrial defendants high prices for phone calls punishes people who are legally innocent, drives up costs for their appointed counsel and makes it harder for them to contact family members and others who might help them post bail or build their defense. It also puts them at risk of losing their jobs, housing and custody of their children while they are in jail awaiting trial."

Per the report, one of the main reasons this happens is that sheriffs across the country have signed "lucrative phone contracts that prey on pretrial detainees." “State of Phone Justice" co-author Peter Wagner breaks it down. "Jails have managed to escape the political pressure that forced many prisons to bring their rates down," he says in the statment. "We found that many jails are charging three, five or even 50 times as much as their state’s prisons would charge for the same phone call."

Phone providers seek to land jail contracts by "offering sheriffs portions of the revenue." The companies can then charge ridiculously high rates and slip in "hidden fees that fleece customers." Finally, as the report states, "state legislators, regulators and governors pay little attention to jails, even as they continue to lower the cost of calls home from state prisons."

Pretrial detainees are at an additional loss because costly phone calls can also affect the outcome of their cases, which is detrimental to the entire justice system. Prison Policy Initiative explains:


"People detained pretrial are more likely to plead guilty just to get out of jail, more likely to be convicted and more likely to get longer sentences. Costly phone calls play a central role in this injustice by limiting how often and how long pretrial detainees can talk to their families and friends in the service of their defense. This makes it harder for defense attorneys to coordinate with family to build mitigation cases or track down witnesses. As a result, pretrial detainees often present a weaker defense than they would have if they had been able to make calls freely."

You can read the entire report here.