Profits from jail phone calls soar during pandemic

A grayscale shot of a jail telephone on a table next to the window

FRANKFORT, Ky. — A new report finds county jails made more than $9 million from payments made for phone calls by incarcerated people, the year before and during the pandemic.

The report by Mike Harmon, the state’s auditor of public accounts, examined more than 70 county jails’ communication services and equipment contracts that were active between July 2019 and November 2020.

Marcus Jackson, smart justice organizer and coordinator at ACLU Kentucky, said inmates’ families foot the bill for marked-up prices on a number of services, including food purchased from commissary vendors. He added it is commonplace for jails to receive financial perks from vendors.

“No one that’s incarcerated has the money to pay these high phone bills,” Jackson asserted. “It’s their family members that are already in bad situations and barely making it paycheck to paycheck that are also paying taxes, that’s paying these high bills.”

Jackson noted in addition to financial burdens, high costs for phone calls cause emotional distress and makes it harder for inmates and their families to maintain social ties, all of which research shows can boost successful re-entry into society.

Some municipalities, such as New York City, have introduced legislation to provide communication services in jails and prisons at no cost.

Jackson noted in Kentucky, inmates can be charged upwards of $10 for a 15-minute phone call.

“Let’s say if a person calls home every day, once a day. Three hundred dollars per month added to a struggling family,” Jackson explained.

The report also found some contracts with telecommunications companies were based on verbal agreements. Auditors say unwritten contracts raise serious policy issues and can obscure the flow of money from county governments, taxpayers and officials.