“There were a lot of times my sons tried calling me,” recalled Annette Taylor, who regularly receives calls from her two sons in prison, “but there was no money on the account.” Those were some of the “hardest calls,” she said. “I would worry something was wrong.”
Families of those incarcerated have long complained about the high cost of phone calls from prison. A national campaign pressured the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to intervene in 2015, but the agency’s regulations have since been reversed by the Trump administration.
In Illinois, the price of prison phone calls was just drastically reduced, making it much easier for Taylor and others like her to stay in contact with their loved ones. Just a few years ago, Illinois had the most inflated rates in the country. According to a renegotiated contract, the cost of a call from prison is now just under a penny a minute. Illinois is now the state with the lowest costs in the country.
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Taylor’s group, the Ripple Effect (Reaching Into Prisons with Purpose and Love), a prison pen pal project located in Champaign, Illinois, was involved early on in the campaign to reduce the rates. “It’s such a blessing for my family,” Taylor told Truthout in an email exchange. “Now, one of my sons calls too much!”
There are approximately 40,000 people incarcerated in 29 prisons operated by the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC). Among them is Flonard Wrencher, who is incarcerated at the Southwestern Illinois Correctional Center. “These days, there are longer lines for the phones,” Wrencher told Truthout over a phone call.
His wife, who he talks to once or twice a week, first told him about the drop in prices. Wrencher also makes calls to his sister and son, and corresponds regularly with Matt McLoughlin, director of programs at the Chicago Community Bond Fund. More people are signing up for phone accounts, he said, although there are still costly additional fees. He was “fuzzy” about why the change took place. But those on the inside see a “big difference, and they appreciate it.”
Pennies From Heaven
In 2016, a bill was passed in the Illinois legislature and signed into law cutting the cost of phone calls from prison in half. Previously, a call that lasted 30 minutes cost $4, now it costs only about $2 under the new bill. Shortly after the bill went into effect, however, IDOC renegotiated the Securus contract to include the penny-per-minute rates.
Previously, the state was collecting the highest rate of commissions in the country, at $12 million a year. Commissions are a percentage of the calls given back to the state as part of its contract with Securus Technologies, one of the nation’s two largest prison phone services providers. This practice, which activists call “kickbacks,” is common at many prisons and jails across the country.
The bill was led by the Illinois Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, a grassroots effort that brought together those incarcerated and their families, with prison activists in Chicago and downstate Illinois. It was led by the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center, a community center established in 2000 as an outgrowth of the indymedia movement following the 1999 “Battle in Seattle” World Trade Organization protests. State Rep. Carol Ammons, who is based in Urbana-Champaign and who began her political career as a community organizer working to reverse the local impact of mass incarceration, championed the bill as well.
The new law took effect January 1, 2018, setting the price of calls at seven cents per minute. While the law capped phone rates, it did not eliminate the millions in commissions. The IDOC quietly took bids for a new contract, which was won by Securus Technologies. According to the renegotiated contract, which began July 1, 2018, rates are listed as .009 per minute, less than a penny. Additionally, commissions are no longer being paid out. Illinois is now the state with the lowest costs in the country, cheaper than New Hampshire and West Virginia.
The campaign was successful because it involved those incarcerated and their families. Spokesperson for the campaign Wandjell Harvey-Robinson first heard about the effort at a letter-writing party hosted by Taylor’s Ripple Effect group. After her parents were incarcerated when she was in the third grade, Harvey-Robinson grew up talking to them over the phone. She quickly became involved with the prison phone justice campaign, traveling to Washington, D.C., to testify before the FCC, and lobbying legislators in Illinois. She was pleased to hear about the penny-per-minute rates in her home state. “It’s amazing that for once,” she told Truthout, “the voices of people rarely listened to are finally heard.”
Other states have followed, passing legislation in recent years to lower the cost of phone calls from prison, but jails lag far behind. As a new study released by Prison Policy Initiative shows, most county jails across the United States still charge exorbitant rates, where dollar-a-minute rates are still common. There are many opportunities for activists to confront the high cost of phone calls at the local level. Activists can learn from Illinois by involving those incarcerated and their families in campaigns to address the everyday impacts of mass incarceration. The people most affected can best articulate the need for regular communication between those on the inside and those on the outside for building strong, resilient communities.
Grassroots Advocacy Works
The newly reduced rates were implemented with no official announcement from the IDOC. The Chicago Tribune reported the news, without pursuing why the rates had been dropped well below the state’s new mandate of seven cents per minute. In response to an inquiry, IDOC Spokesperson Linda Hess told Truthout in an email that, “The change was due to a state law that went into effect January 1, 2018.”
Why the prison system, however, relinquished millions of dollars in commissions is still unknown. Perhaps it was bad press to be extorting money from some of society’s most vulnerable families. Maybe authorities now believe that, as studies have shown, regular phone calls help reduce recidivism for those getting back on their feet after a period of incarceration.
Joseph Dole, an incarcerated writer and activist held in Illinois’s Stateville prison, said nobody there knew why the rates were lowered so drastically, but that they were glad nonetheless. Dole told Truthout there was a “rumor” circulating in Stateville that prisoners were supposed to get tablets from GTL, the nation’s largest prison phone services provider, and Securus’s major industry rival. Wanting to “stay competitive,” Dole suspected that Securus offered the one cent calls.
Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, which litigates for better conditions in Illinois prisons, questioned the IDOC’s explanation. “The idea that this was ‘spontaneous’ is misleading. The legislature mandated reduced rates, but in the end, it was the tireless work of grassroots advocates over more than two decades who are responsible for the IDOC rates being among the very cheapest in the nation,” he said.
The state legislature was, no doubt, responding to growing national concern over private companies profiteering from those incarcerated and their families.
Ultimately though, Paul Wright, director of the Human Rights Defense Center, says that the extremely low costs in Illinois only reveal the hefty profits prison profiteers are still able to make. “Prison telecom companies buy telephone time for fractions of a penny per minute and can make massive profits by allowing calls for a penny a minute, in part because they gouge family members with ancillary fees including charging them to pay their phone bills and similar tactics.”