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'Planet Money': The movement to make prison phone calls free

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Back here in the U.S, for most people, the cost of making a phone call has never been cheaper. But for many people who are incarcerated and their families, staying connected can become a huge financial burden. So how did prison phone calls get so expensive? Darian Woods and Adrian Ma are with our podcast The Indicator From Planet Money. They're going to explain.

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: Before Diane Lewis' son went to jail, she had one instruction for him - call me every day.

DIANE LEWIS: When he went in, I started to think about everything I saw on TV - like, oh my God, they're going to kill him. He's going to be fighting all the time. He's going to be assaulted. He was 17, so I was afraid. I was really, really afraid.

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: Her son, Jovaan Lumpkin, had been convicted of conspiracy to commit first-degree assault and had been sentenced to up to 12 years in adult prison.

JOVAAN LUMPKIN: Having people that love you and reminding you that, you know, you are a normal person and you are loved - it makes it manageable.

MA: Now, these calls were costing his mom hundreds of dollars a month, and what he didn't know at the time was for Diane to afford these calls, she would often skip meals or not pay the electric bill.

LEWIS: I can't imagine the phone being cut off with my son in prison. Like, that would be - I don't know if I would have survived that.

MA: In the early 1980s, the cost of prison phone calls were actually pretty comparable to calls on the outside because calls in general were expensive.

WOODS: Back then, AT&T had a monopoly on phone service, and the cost of a call varied a lot depending on how long it was, the distance, the time of day or week you called. Bianca Tylek is head of Worth Rises, which is a group that does advocacy on various criminal justice issues.

BIANCA TYLEK: You know, over the years, in advancement with technology, naturally, those costs started to come down really significantly, to the point that, like, you know, it's incredibly cheap to basically communicate now with people.

MA: She says the breakup of AT&T's monopoly created more competition and also helped bring down the cost of calls.

TYLEK: But in the prison space, that didn't happen. This niche industry moved in.

WOODS: That niche industry? Providing phone service for prisons and jails.

TYLEK: And they did two things that were, like, super important to their survival. One is that they layered on security and surveillance services onto these calls, and secondly, they agreed to share the profits that they received from these calls with the prisons and jails.

MA: This last bit is worth emphasizing. Because prisons and jails often get a cut of that revenue, they don't have much incentive to negotiate for lower prices.

WOODS: One more important piece of the prison call puzzle is the role of private equity. Over the last couple of decades, Bianca says private equity firms have invested in the industry. The resulting consolidation means there are now two companies dominating the prison telecom industry. They're called Securus and ViaPath.

MA: But in the past few years, there's been a growing movement to make these calls less expensive.

WOODS: Since 2021, at least five states have passed laws making prison phone calls free for prisoners and their families.

MA: Although Diane's son Jovaan got out of prison years ago, nowadays, she's working with advocates like Bianca to raise awareness around this issue. She hopes she can help others who have loved ones in lockup.

WOODS: Darian Woods.

MA: Adrian Ma, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Adrian Ma
Darian Woods is a reporter and producer for The Indicator from Planet Money. He blends economics, journalism, and an ear for audio to tell stories that explain the global economy. He's reported on the time the world got together and solved a climate crisis, vaccine intellectual property explained through cake baking, and how Kit Kat bars reveal hidden economic forces.
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