Arkansas Prison Phone Call Rates Too Steep, Say Advocates

Apr 29, 2014

File photo of prison inmates inside Cummins Prison in southeast Arkansas.
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

The Arkansas Department of Corrections will soon decide on the future of inmate telephone services at its meeting on Tuesday. The Department’s current contract with Global Tel Link is expiring this year and advocates say the high rates charged for phone calls are unfair for inmates and their families.

Jean Thrash with the Little Rock Chapter of the organization End Mass Incarceration says a call from the Cummins Unit to a person living in Conway can easily run up to 8 dollars. She says that hurts the bond between inmates and their outside families.

“Numerous studies have shown that the greater the connection to the families of the incarcerated, the greater the success that they reach when they are released,” Thash says. “So, the more pressure we put on the family of the incarcerated, the less likely they're able to keep in contact with their loved ones.”

Thrash says specific billing amounts for connection fees, per minute rates and other taxes and fees are often murky people making prison calls. Shea Wilson, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections says the charges associated with the phone rates go to provide essential services in prisons.

“We do collect a commission off of our telephone services and those dollars go back into a fund to help support the cost of the system. We have to monitor phone calls that involve security staff and time, equipment and those types of things. So there are costs associated with those types of things. So there are costs associated with offering that service to inmates,” Wilson says.

The Department currently collects a 45 percent commission on the cost of the phone calls. Wilson says that commission also goes to a fund that provides money to inmates upon their release.

Thrash also says that in its previous meetings, the Board of Corrections hasn’t adequately opened the floor to public input, before important decisions are made.

“We asked if there was a comment period to where we could make comment. And the reponse was after the decision was made, we could file [a Freedom of Information Act request] to find out [which] contract was [chosen]. There's really not any overt request for input from the consumers.”

Wilson disagrees and says her agency is always listening to the public, most recently about the phone call rates.

“We're a public agency. Our meetings are public. We listen to the public all the time. Anyone who wants to attend a meeting can,” she says.

Last year, the FCC put a cap on prison phone call charges, but the cap only applies to Arkansas prisoners making out-of-state calls. Advocates of reform say this has led to in-state calls often costing more than out-of-state calls.