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One Not-So-Minor Victory for Prison Reform

The Federal Communication Commission's cap on absurd prison phone call costs underscores the predatory rent-seeking of the prison-industrial complex.
(Photo: KOMUnews/Flickr)

(Photo: KOMUnews/Flickr)

In a single vote last week, the United States government lifted a small but crushing burden on prisoners and their families.

The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to reduce the cost of jail and prison phone calls, the Associated Press reports, two years after voting to restrict high rates on interstate calls. The decision will restrict calls placed by inmates to $1.65 for 15 minutes, significantly lower than the $17 to $25 charges that inmates have previously endured, a result of extra fees and costs.

While this might seem like a piecemeal change in the context of the country's bloated prison industrial complex, it's a tremendous boon for low-income families swamped by excessive charges while attempting to keep in touch with their loved ones. "It is a very predatory system that is unfair," Kansas resident Dorothee Warner, who spent almost $2,000 in 2015 to speak to her jailed son, told the Associated Press. "People who are incarcerated, it is very difficult on their families. It is almost like the family is being punished as well." Naturally, the phone companies who benefit by monopolizing prison communications, are angry, calling the decision "patently wrong" and "beyond belief."

The FCC's decision on inmate phone calls, while small, is hugely significant: a moment when prison reform advocates managed to use the machinery of the federal government to curb the economic exploitation of prisoners.

The debate over inmate phone charges isn't simply about alleviating a singular burden on families like Dorothee Warner's, who are effectively being punished for their relatives' transgressions. Rather, it raises a broader question about the underlying intent and incentives that shape the institutions of mass incarceration in America. While relinquishing certain political and civil rights has indeed been part of the foundation of punishment since the beginning of Western history (punishment that continues after inmates' release, in the form of political disenfranchisement), is economic exploitation an egregious departure from the ostensible role of prisons to punish and rehabilitate? In a nation pockmarked by private prisons, is a $15 phone call really the sort of justice system we want?


Prison labor is the clearest and most hotly discussed example of economic exploitation in the criminal justice system. According to research by the Prison Policy Initiative, the average inmate makes anywhere from $0.23 to $1.25 an hour, the latter of which is the maximum wage set by the Federal Prison Industries (FPI or UNICOR)—far lower than the $7.25-an-hour federal minimum wage. All able-bodied inmates are required to work, and their products furnish federal agencies like the Department of Defense and the U.S. Postal Service. Thousands of inmates make children's toys, pick grapes, fight wildfires, and farm while serving time. With 18 percent of the country's 2.4 million inmates in federal prisons—the majority of whom are locked up for drug offenses, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons—there's no shortage of cheap, forced labor.

This exploitative relationship becomes even more obvious when you realize how little governments actually invest in prison life. Florida and California prisons spend $2.32 and $2.45 to feed an inmate each day, far below the U.S. average of $8.12. When it comes to health, 40 percent of jails and 17 percent of prisons don't provide mental-health screenings to new inmates. Meanwhile, syphilis, tuberculosis, and HIV continue to run rampant behind bars. Sure, it's highly unpopular to suggest that taxpayers shell out more of their hard-earned money to help improve the quality of life for inmates, but the ravages of prison life end up having a long-term impact on the economy, from recidivism to future economic opportunities. Even though some 93 percent of prisoner wardens support vocational and educational training for inmates, only 55.7 percent offer the former, while 23.4 percent provide a high school GED and 9.9 percent offer college courses. And, on par with the astronomical costs of prison phone calls, a lack of visits due to geography or a punitive administrative policy only makes future crimes more likely among inmates.

The American penal system is not concerned with rehabilitation or even appropriate punishment (as though depriving felons of their liberty, mobility, and agency was enough). Instead, the rise of the prison-industrial complex has yielded a system of incarceration focused solely on profit, shaped by the relentless rent-seeking—that is, increasing one's own wealth without creating anything new, or the "one percent problem" as economist Joseph Stiglitz called it—of private prison investors and their respective shareholders. This trend that will likely remain the norm so long as private prison companies like GEO and the Corrections Corporation of America are able to funnel millions of dollars in lobbying and campaign contributions to elected officials.

The FCC's decision on inmate phone calls, while small, is hugely significant: a moment when prison reform advocates managed to use the machinery of the federal government to curb the economic exploitation of prisoners. Given the outsized influence of the private prison lobby in D.C., it's unlikely that this victory will set off a chain reaction of policy changes to America's incarceration methods. But with the ongoing explosion of the U.S. prison population since the 1970s, these victories may help underscore the predatory profiteering of the U.S. penal system, perhaps acting as a catalyst for some real, substantive reform.