A typical phone call usually doesn't cost much, if anything. But in jails and prisons, inmates must pay to use phones to stay in touch with loved ones and their lawyers. These prices can vary dramatically based on where someone is incarcerated.
In Ohio’s state prisons in 2008, a 15-minute in-state phone call cost $5.55 on average. Today, that same phone call only costs $0.75, according to a data analysis from a research organization called The Prison Policy Initiative.
Ohio is now one of the cheapest states in the country to make a phone call from prison, where the rates are set by the state.
“Many prisons have brought cost of phone calls down by negotiating lower rates with phone providers,” says Wanda Bertram. “And because the FCC took some national action by capping cost that phone calls out of state could be.”
But in jail, the cost of a phone call is set by the county sheriff. Nationwide, the cost of a 15-minute in-state phone call from jail varies widely. In some places, it can cost more than $1 per minute.
“Mass incarceration targets most vulnerable people in country, poor people, largely people of color,” Bertram says. “It’s additionally bad in local jails because 75 percent of people in jails haven’t been convicted of a crime.”
In predominantly rural counties, a 15-minute in-state phone call costs more than $7.50. In counties that are predominantly urban, the same call costs half as much.
That trend holds true in Ohio. The state has a relatively rare cap of $3.15 for a 15-minute in-state phone call. But the counties with lower prices are also urban centers: Toledo, Cincinatti and Columbus.
In Franklin County, that call only costs $0.60.
Each county makes its own deal with phone providers. Some counties cut deals with phone providers where they get some of the money back, Bertram says. She hypothesizes that some rural counties might be more in need of revenue, and thus charge more for phone prices.
The cost differentials aren’t because of different phone providers, though. For example, the company GTL provides phone services for Franklin County at $0.60 but other more rural counties at $3.15.
“The rates for each facility are set to meet the specific needs of the individual facility,” GTL wrote in an emailed statement. “We offer a wide variety of products and services and customize the offerings to provide the best service and rates for every facility we serve.”