Global Tel Link Corp., Securus Technologies Inc. and smaller competitors in the $1.2 billion inmate-phone industry bid for exclusive contracts to provide telephone service, agreeing to pay as much as two-thirds of calling charges to government or private prison operators. Those commissions can drive fees to levels that make it difficult for prisoners to maintain contact with spouses, children and parents.
“Hello, does anybody hear me out there?” David Wrobleski, serving a life sentence in a Michigan prison, wrote July 15 to U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski. “Over the years, I have lost most of my contact with my family and friends due to the increased cost of a telephone call from the prison setting. I come from a very poor family.”
In an online question-and-answer exchange last month, Genachowski, a Democrat, called prison phone rates a “serious issue for families, communities, security” and said the FCC is “preparing next steps.” He didn’t provide details.
A collection of civil rights, religious groups and members of Congress is pressing the FCC to act on a petition filed in 2003 by prisoners and family members to cut “exorbitant” rates. Representatives from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the United Church of Christ, the National Urban League and other organizations met with Genachowski in September and asked for a clear date for action.
“It is cheaper to call Singapore at 12 cents a minute from a cell phone than it would be to speak to someone in prison in this country,” a group of 30 organizations and individuals said in a May 18 filing asking the FCC to cap interstate rates. The current system, they said, provides “every incentive to choose bids that maximize fees.”
Global Tel*Link, based in Mobile, Alabama, has about 50 percent of the correctional phone services market, followed by Securus with almost 30 percent, according to Standard & Poor’s.
Global Tel*Link directed questions to its owner, American Securities LLC, a Park Avenue private equity firm. Caroline Harris, a spokeswoman for American Securities, declined to comment. So did Michael Millican, a spokesman for New York based Castle Harlan Inc., which owns Securus.
Prison phone charges vary by location. A 15-minute call through Global Tel*Link costs $2.36 in Massachusetts and more than $17 in Georgia, according to a study released Sept. 11 by the Prison Policy Initiative, an advocacy group in Easthampton, Massachusetts. In New York where commissions aren’t allowed, Global Tel*Link charges about 5 cents a minute, according to the study.
The commissions phone companies pay to prison operators “are the product of a public policy decision made by correctional authorities, and in some cases state legislatures,” which may use their share of phone fees to fund prison operations and inmate welfare funds, Dallas-based Securus said in a filing with the FCC.
Prison calls cost more than residential telephone service for reasons that include security requirements and bad debts, according to Securus, which said in a filing that it has about 1,400 contracts in 46 states.
Prison calling services include security capabilities such as preventing call-forwarding and conference calls, and caller identification based on voice analysis, Global Tel*Link said in an Oct. 3 filing at the FCC. Chief Executive Officer Brian Oliver discussed inmate calling in a meeting with Commissioner Ajit Pai, a member of the agency’s Republican minority, according to the filing.
Prisoners make collect calls or set up prepaid accounts funded by relatives or by their earnings from prison jobs that pay cents per hour. Service providers may collect per-call fees in addition to time-based charges, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
Forty-two states got commissions from phone companies in 2008, averaging 42 percent of the charges and reaching as much as 66 percent, according to a July filing by groups asking the FCC to set a benchmark rate of 20 cents or 25 cents a minute.
Until recently, charges from Global Tel*Link ran about $100 a month for Tom and Dora Pickles, 79-year-old retirees in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Their son, Scott, is serving a life sentence in Connecticut after killing his wife and two children.
“We have counted that as an expense that was just there we didn’t care what it was, were going to live with it, and pay it,” Dora Pickles said in a telephone interview.