When it was finally my turn to use the robin-egg prison phone, I hesitated. I was worried about my mother’s recent bout of COVID-19 and had been calling home several times a week — but at $3 for a 15-minute call, it was getting expensive.
“Maybe if you just called every Saturday that would be better, honey,” she gently suggested one evening, not wanting to hurt my feelings. “Every time I turn around I’m putting money in your phone account.”
But things may be changing, as some states are beginning to offer free phone calls in prison. In June 2021, Connecticut became the first state to sign legislation making all prison calls free, thus giving families a way to talk to their loved ones inside without having to worry about the cost.
“Phone corporations will no longer be allowed to exploit the love between incarcerated people and their families,” said Connecticut Rep. Josh Elliott in a USA Today report.
As a resident in the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC), it’s my hope that we will someday get free phone calls like Connecticut does.
Private telephone companies notoriously charge high collect call rates out of county jails and state correctional institutions. Because of this, many incarcerated men and women are unable to call home, making simple gestures like wishing someone a happy birthday or consoling a sick family member impossible.
In an age of mass incarceration, when families are already under financial pressure to support their loved ones inside prison, it’s time to change some of the little things that can matter the most.
Places like New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles already have plans to make jail and prison calls free in the future, easing the financial burden on incarcerated prisoners and their struggling families.
Florida’s corrections department works with phone service provider Global Tel Link (GTL) after recently terminating its contract with Securus Technologies. As someone who uses the phone frequently to talk to friends and family, I was excited to hear rumors that GTL calls would be more affordable.
But I was wrong.
In addition to paying 18 cents per minute, my family and friends are charged a $3 deposit transaction fee, plus a third-party financial transaction fee of 3.25%. That’s roughly $50 a month for seven calls lasting 30-minutes each. That money could have been used towards my son’s college tuition, my re-entry into the community or to pay restitution and court costs.
Frank Morse, 42, is a friend of mine serving a life sentence and phones his parents as much as he can.
“I don’t call them as often as I want to because I don’t want to burden them,” he said. “But at the same time, I’d like to talk to my family every day.”
For the time being, prisoners like Morse are dependent on new contracts to get free calls.
Phone rates in the FDC are governed by facility contracts — meaning prisons can negotiate lower prices, but have not done so. Likewise, correctional institutions in Florida could easily insist on free calls from GTL, while still paying the company a nominal service fee.
The bill in Connecticut provides a minimum of 90 minutes a day of free calls. In contrast, GTL offers Florida prisoners one free call each week lasting five minutes. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has the power to change that if he chooses to, helping lower the impact of mass incarceration in his state.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.