How some jail and prison systems exploit inmates and families

Some time ago, I wrote about how some US prison systems charge inmates and their families for things that we on the outside get for free, such as email accounts with Gmail and Yahoo.

Inside prisons, e-messaging companies are quietly building a money-making machine virtually unhindered by competition—a monopoly that would be intolerable in the outside world. It’s based in a simple formula: Whatever it costs to send a message, prisoners and their loved ones will find a way to pay it. And, the more ways prisoners are cut off from communicating with their families, the better it is for business.

For many years, phone calls from jails and prisons were unregulated, allowing private telecommunications providers to charge as much as $1 a minute for a call. After years of organizing by prisoner rights advocates, the Federal Communications Commission voted in 2013 to cap the costs of interstate phone calls, calling it a first step toward ending the exorbitant costs of staying in contact. Two years later, the commission extended the cap to intrastate calls. But after five prison phone providers, including Securus, filed separate petitions challenging the FCC’s decision, the ruling was overturned—leaving pricing entirely in the hands of private companies, with charges ranging from 96 cents to as much as $18 for a 20-minute call.

Prisoners also had to buy tablets and pay twice the market rate to download songs. And that is not all. If families transfer money to inmates to pay for the songs, the jail takes a cut of that as well

This is part of the trend to try and monetize everything about jails and prisons, knowing that inmates and their families are desperate. Now some jails have found yet another cruel way to make money, by first prohibiting in-person visits, even from inmates’ children, and then charging for video calls.

Last fall, Le’Essa learned why the children of Flint had been blocked from seeing their parents at the Genesee County Jail. In 2012, a company called Securus Technologies struck a deal with the county, offering financial incentives to replace jail visits with video calls. Families would pay fees that could exceed a dollar a minute to see their loved ones on an often grainy video feed; the county would earn a cut of the profits. “A lot of people will swipe that Mastercard and visit their grandkids,” a county official told the press at the time.

A few years later, the county went after an even steeper commission. In the sheriff’s office, a captain named Jason Gould helped negotiate a deal with a Securus competitor called Global Tel*Link (or GTL, now known as ViaPath), which included a fixed commission of a hundred and eighty thousand dollars a year, plus a sixty-thousand-dollar annual “technology grant,” and twenty per cent of the revenue from video calls. The jail chose not to restore families’ access to in-person visits. To celebrate the deal, an undersheriff joked to Gould, by e-mail, “You are not Captain Gold for nothing!”

County sheriffs across the country were making similar deals with Securus and GTL, which resulted in millions of dollars in commissions. Many of those counties replaced in-person visits with the companies’ video calls.

In St. Clair County, the financial incentives were stark. Public records I reviewed showed that, after the jail eliminated in-person visits, call commissions almost tripled, from $154,131 in 2017 to $404,752 the following year. In February of 2018, a jail administrator wrote a cheerful e-mail to colleagues: “Well that is a nice increase in revenues!”

Remember that the inmates in jails usually have not been convicted of anything and have sometimes been there for over a year without going to trial because they could not afford bail.

Some suspect another ulterior motive for this awful practice, in addition to making money for the jails.

An older man offered up a theory about the jail’s decision to end in-person visits. “The system is designed to take us from our families, so that we take a plea deal just to get back to them,” he said. The whole group nodded. “We all know that when you’re in the penitentiary at least you can see your family.” He was referring to the fact that the state’s prisons still facilitated regular in-person visits. “Here, they’re trying to break us,” the man insisted.

On the women’s side of the jail, the desperation is even more extreme. The women report that at times they are placed on lockdown for twenty-three hours a day. Two mothers told me that, during the free hour, dozens of women compete for a limited number of kiosks, on which they hope to see their children’s faces. One mother, whom I’ll call Jane, recalled that physical and verbal altercations were constant. “Everyone wants to call their kids,” she said.

“A lot of the women in the jail with me were deeply family-oriented people, but, because the calls were so outrageously expensive, I watched them break down into despair,” Jane continued. A surreal economy arose: “Women would beg me, saying, ‘I’ll give you some noodles,’ or ‘I’ll do your laundry,’ or ‘I’ll do your hair and eyebrows’—whatever they could offer to afford a phone call to their kids. If you don’t have money, you don’t get to have ties to your family.”

Some families are fighting back, with ‘Right to Hug’ lawsuits, arguing that jail inmates have the right to hug their children.

The sheer cruelty of such practices makes me despair.


  1. JM says

    This sort of treatment is not only abusive it’s counterproductive. Isolating people from their families gets in the way of rehabilitation and causes more crime. Prisons should be encouraging contact between prisoners and their families.
    Even without the bribery and backroom deals that permeate these businesses having the prison system finance itself through fines and fees is just asking for abuse.
    Trying to list the problems with the American prison system is a nearly endless task but this is one of the worst.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    It’s only counterproductive if you think the prison system is even slightly about rehabilitation.

    There are for reasons to lock someone up when they’ve committed (or are suspected of) a crime:
    1. Security -- while they’re inside, they’re not out doing more crime
    2. Deterrent -- people don’t want to do time, so they don’t do crime
    3. Punishment -- revenge, effectively
    4. Rehabilitation -- trying to stop them doing it again

    The US has replaced (4) almost entirely with “make a shitload of money for private companies”. Because of course it has. See also healthcare.

  3. John Morales says

    Well, at least they’re not officially enslaved and whipped to work in the fields type of stuff.
    Which, apparently, is quite constitutional.

    The lucky 13th:
    “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

    So, could be worse.

    “BEN: You lucky bastard.

    BRIAN: Who’s that?

    BEN: You lucky, lucky bastard.

    BRIAN: What?

    BEN: Proper little jailer’s pet, aren’t we?

    BRIAN: What do you mean?

    BEN: You must have slipped him a few shekels, eh?

    BRIAN: Slipped him a few shekels? You saw him spit in my face!

    BEN: Ohh! What wouldn’t I give to be spat at in the face! I sometimes hang awake at night dreaming of being spat at in the face.

    BRIAN: Well, it’s not exactly friendly, is it? They had me in manacles!

    BEN: Manacles! Ooh oooh oh oh. My idea of heaven is to be allowed to be put in manacles… just for a few hours. They must think the sun shines out o’ your arse, sonny.

    BRIAN: Oh, lay off me. I’ve had a hard time!

    BEN: You’ve had a hard time?! I’ve been here five years! They only hung me the right way up yesterday! So, don’t you come ‘rou--

    BRIAN: All right. All right. “

  4. Silentbob says

    @ 3 Morales

    You cannot possibly be unaware that working for free (“community service”) is considered an acceptable punishment. In fact we have recently had people on this blog fantasising about Trump doing trash collection, etc.

    “Whipping” of course was a characteristicly stupid thing of you to say and totally off topic.

  5. xohjoh2n says


    You missed:

    5. panem et circenses -- Seeing other people have suffering inflicted upon them makes people feel good, and they don’t give a hoot whether it’s deserved or not.

  6. Jazzlet says

    Silentbob @#4
    In most countries the punishment for the imprisoned is being deprived of your liberty, doing community service is an alternative punishment, adding it to imprisonment is enforcing double punishment. Working while in prison should be voluntary, and paid at the going rate, neither of those things is true for prisoners in the USA. Slavery is the name we give to forcing people to work with out pay in any other circumstances, and to my mind it also applies to forcing prisoners to work without pay.

  7. xohjoh2n says


    Nope, revenge as a motive is predicated on it being *for* something that they did, rather than for no reason other than the enjoyment of the observer.

  8. Holms says

    However you place it, it is / they are both terrible reasons and should be removed from any systems that seeks justice.

  9. John Morales says

    “Whipping” of course was a characteristicly stupid thing of you to say and totally off topic.

    Way to miss the significance of what I wrote, bobifecalist.

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