Equitable Telephone Charges (eTc) Campaign

This website was designed to help people advocate for changes in the prison phone system. They encouraged people to participate. Here is how the campaign worked circa 2003.

Each month, for ten months, you will visit this website and select the letter you wish to send. Each letter is designed to be sent to one or more policy makers in a position to make a difference.

NOTES:           

  • Please send the letters in the sequence they are presented.
  • If you live in the same state as your incarcerated loved one, you will need to know your state representative and state senator. (We will provide the name of the appropriate legislators if your loved one is incarcerated in another state)

When you select a letter, you will be asked for information that is needed to complete it.

In some instances that will include the option of listing problems you have experienced, or adding your own comments to the letter.

We will combine the information you provide with information in our database

to create each letter.

Then you print the letter and mail it to the addresses(es) provided.

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More about eTc

The 2000 Campaign

The Equitable Telephone Charges (eTc) Campaign was launched in January 2000.  At that time, over 37,000 campaign packets were mailed to participants in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The packets contained materials that were to be sent to state legislators, governors, prison system leaders, and telephone company leaders.  We also sent materials to state legislators from Campaign headquarters.  In most states, campaign materials were also personally delivered to the office of each legislator.

The 2000 campaign was financed by campaign participants and generous contributions from:

  • Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE)
  • The Dominican Sisters of St. Catharine, Kentucky
  • RESIST
  • The Unitarian Universalist Funding Program
  • The Center on Crime, Communities & Culture

 

Since the 2000 campaign was launched, we have seen many changes in prison telephone systems.  See our Campaign Report below.

This Web-Based Campaign

While we were pleased with the progress we saw after 2000, many problems remain. This web-based effort has been launched in an effort to address many of those problems.

 

This effort is being financed by:

  • Campaign Paticipants
  • Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE)
  • The Dominican Sisters of St. Catharine, Kentucky

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Advocate for Change

We hope you will use the information on this website to ask policy makers for changes in the prison phone system.  Many of the positive changes we have seen were the result of just one or two policy makers who became concerned. The following FAQs will help you prepare to contact individuals.

1. How do I get started? 

Be certain you understand the situation.

  • Visit the Rates by State page to see how the rates you are paying and the calling options you have compare to other states in the region and across the country. 
  • Visit the National Perspective page to see how the system you are forced to use compares with others. 
  • Visit the Developments Since 2000 page to see what has happened in your state and what editorialists have said, if anything.

2. Who should I contact?

Prison phone policies are determined at the state level.  So, we recommend that you contact state officials.  
Those include the following:

  • Public Service Commission or agency that regulates utilities
  • Attorney General or Agency that oversees consumer protection
  • Commissioner or Director of the Department of Corrections
  • Phone Company that provides the service 
  • Better Business Bureau for the region that headquarters the phone company
  • Your state representative
  • Your state senator

3. What if I accept calls from another state?  Who do I write to in that case?

Write to the officials in the state from which you receive calls.  In the case of legislators, write to the chairpersons of the house and senate committees that oversee corrections.  (Those can be located on the state's legislative website.)

4. What points should I raise? 

We have heard a number of complaints from individuals who receive calls from individuals who are incarcerated.  Depending upon your experiences, you may want to raise some of the following issues:

  • I have been charged for calls I was not home to receive.
  • I have had calls prematurely terminated.
  • I have had my phone number blocked, apparently because the phone company with whom the prison system has contracted does not have a billing agreement with my local phone company.
  • I am charged exorbitant rates, in part because the phone company that operates the inmate phone service offers (and the state agrees to accept) an unreasonably high commission.
  • I am not allowed less expensive calling options. There is no technical reason why I should not be able to receive prepaid and/or debit calls that avoid operator assistance and can be billed profitably at considerably lower rates. 
  • I am forced to pay in advance for collect phone calls, and never receive an accounting of dates, times, and length of calls charged against that prepayment.
  • The phone company charges me to process my payment.


5. What else should I include in the letter?

Be certain to include your name and address.  You may want to include your phone number as well.
Explain how long you have been receiving calls from the prison.  You may want to include a copy of your phone bill or the total amount you spend in a typical month.

6. How do I find the addresses of the individuals to whom I should write? 

Look up the phone company for the prison system on the Rates by State page. Click here for the chart that provides the address for each phone company and the associated Better Business Bureau. Click here for the address of the regulatory agency, the consumer protection advocate and the department of corrections.  See your state legislature's website for the address of your state senator and state representative.

7.How do I respond to false claims by the phone company or the department of corrections?

Many of those who defend abusive prison telephone systems offer misleading information for justification. Policy should be based on truth, not fiction.  Here is the truth:

  • •          Neither the state utility regulators (in most cases) nor the Federal Communications Commission sets rates for prison phone calls.  Since deregulation, phone companies are required to file rates, but those rates are not regulated or monitored.  (Check the Litigation Section of the "Progress Since 2000" page to see if the utility commission in your state has taken any action.)
  • The security features required for prison phone calls (e.g. branding, time limitations, monitoring, number restrictions, and bans on 3rd party calls) can be applied to debit calls as well as collect calls - at no additional cost.  (Because debit calls are prepaid and require no operator assistance, debit calls are charged at rates that are considerably cheaper than collect rates.)  
  • Debit calling would not require additional expensive hardware or software. 
  • Representatives of phone companies have told us that debit calling would NOT substantially reduce the revenue received by the prison system.  If calls were less expensive, individuals would simply call more often. 
  • It is not necessary to wait until the expiration of the contract to initiate changes.  Prison systems have negotiated changes in existing contracts.
  • While it is true that prisoner calls generally do not cost more than a collect call in the free world, it is important to understand that prisoners in many states are only allowed to make expensive collect calls.  Individuals in the free world can avoid such charges by making direct calls or using credit cards, debit cards, toll-free numbers, etc.
  • It is NOT true that taxpayers would have to subsidize the cost of the prison phone system if rates were reduced.  Commissions currently paid to the prison systems more than cover any costs associated with the phones.  If debit calling were implemented, rates could be reduced even more and still cover all costs.
  • It is true that the families and friends of prisoner are often poor, and can ill afford unreasonably high phone charges.
  • It is true that prisons are often built far from population centers, making visiting expensive and difficult.  Phone contact is the most practical means of staying in touch.
  • To the extent that telephone commissions are used for the benefit of prisoners, all taxpayers benefit as well.  It is not fair to "tax" only the families and friends of prisoners to pay for programs that will rehabilitate, produce more secure prisons, and enhance public safety. 

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A National Perspective on Prison Telephone Systems

 

Debit/Prepaid Calling

The following states offer both collect and prepaid or debit calling with reduced rates for the prepaid or debit calls:

Arizona

Colorado

Connecticut

District of Columbia

Idaho

Indiana

Kansas

Maine

Maryland

Massachusetts

Michigan

Minnesota

Missouri

Nebraska

New Hampshire

New Jersey

New Mexico

North Dakota

Ohio

Oregon

Pennsylvania

Rhode Island

South Carolina

South Dakota

Tennessee

Texas

Vermont

Virginia

Washington

Wyoming

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Commissions

The following states accept no commission on calls placed by incarcerated citizens:

 Michigan

 Missouri

 Nebraska

 New York

 Oklahoma

 Rhode Island

 California will phase out commissions by fiscal year 2010/2011

Regulatory Developments

State regulatory agencies in Alabama, Maine, and New Mexico have concluded that they can regulate calls originating from jails and prisons.

Unique Features

There are several states that have rather unique systems.

  1. Iowa is the only state that offers only debit calling.

 

  1. Washington is the only state that excludes only interstate calls from the debit calling feature.
  2. The Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Michigan, New Hampshire, and Oregon prison systems allow calls to Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) phones. We do not know if that is unique to those systems, but it is an important development. In the past, some have viewed VOIP as a call forwarding system. Those who have used VOIP report substantial savings.
  3. Arizona, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Oregon also allow prepaid or debit calls to cell phones.  Systems are inconsistent in this regard, and, again, we do not know how many systems allow it.
  4. To our knowledge, the DC Jail is the only facility that allows inmates to call 800 numbers.

Incarcerated persons in Texas are limited to 120 minutes of phone calls each month. To receive calls, the owner of the phone number must be on the visiting list of the person who is incarcerated.

  1. Persons incarcerated in Maryland are charged a 6% state sales tax when placing money in their debit accounts.

Call Blocking

Prison telephone service providers in the majority of states now block collect calls if the telephone provider of the call recipient does not have a billing agreement with them. For example:

  1. A prisoner (John Doe) makes a call to Mary Doe from a phone provided by Sprint.
  2. Mary Doe uses AT&T as her telephone provider.
  3. Because Sprint has no billing agreement with AT&T, Sprint will block calls to Mary.

The only way Mary can receive collect calls is to deposit money (often a $50 minimum deposit) with Sprint.  Mary may never receive an accounting of how the $50 is spent.  Nor will she receive notice when the $50 has been exhausted.  She will likely only discover that when another block is placed on the phone

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Statement of The Honorable Russ Feingold

United States Senator Wisconsin January 28, 2010

Senate Judiciary Committee

S. 1749, Cell Phone Contraband Act of 2010

Thursday, January 28, 2009

Statement of U.S. Senator Russell D. Feingold

I support Senator Feinstein's bill (to outlaw the possession of cell phones for incarcerated persons) and think we should be doing everything possible to ensure that inmates are not able to engage in criminal activity behind prison walls. I hope that this bill will discourage prison guards and family members from smuggling cell phones to prisoners. But there is an issue raised by this bill that we ought to consider before the bill goes to the floor.

As I understand it, many state and local prisons charge exorbitant rates for inmate telephone service. While other telecommunications rates have been declining over the last few decades, inmate phone rates have been climbing. Some prisons only offer collect calling services, and they charge up to four dollar connection fee and as much as one dollar a minute. These excessive rates are unacceptable, especially because it is usually the family members of the inmate who bear the brunt of these high fees. In addition, some prisons apparently receive what sounds a lot like a kickback from the providers of telephone service -- perhaps as much as 50% of the charges for the calls.

I realize that this can amount to a lot of money and prisons are reluctant to give up a source of funding on which they have come to rely, but I am concerned that the proliferation of cell phones in prisons may, in part, be due to this practice. I think this is something we need to look into, in order to both provide reasonable phone rates to prisoners' families, and also to reduce the incentive for smuggling cell phones. I hope that Senator Feinstein will be willing to work with me on this as the bill goes through the legislative process.

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American Correctional Association Policy on Inmate/Juvenile Offender Access to Telephones

Recognizing that there is no constitutional right for inmates/juvenile offenders to have access to telephones, nonetheless consistent with the requirements of sound correctional management, inmates/juvenile offenders should have access to a range of reasonably priced telecommunications services. 

Correctional agencies should ensure that:

Contracts involving telecommunications services for inmates/juvenile offenders comply with all applicable state and federal regulations;

Contracts are based on rates and surcharges that are commensurate with those charged to the general public for like services.  Any deviation from ordinary consumer rates should reflect actual costs associated with the provision of services in a correctional setting; and

Contracts for inmate/juvenile offender telecommunications services provide the broadest range of calling options determined to be consistent with the requirements of sound correctional management.

(Unanimously ratified by the ACA Delegate Assembly at the Winter Conference in Nashville, TN, January 24, 2001)

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AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION

Criminal Justice Section

Approved by Criminal Justice Section Council 5.14.05

RESOLVED, that the American Bar Association encourages federal, state, territorial and local governments, consistent with the constraints of sound correctional management, law enforcement and national security principles, to afford prison and jail inmates every reasonable opportunity to maintain telephonic communication with the free community, and to offer telephone services in the correctional setting with an appropriate range of options at the lowest possible rates.

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NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF WOMEN JUDGES

In a letter to Congressman Bobby Rush dated May 1, 2006, Vanessa Ruiz, President of the National Association of Women Judges (NAWJ) expressed support for the federal legislation H.R. 4466:

NAWJ supports H.R. 4466’s (now H.R. 1133) passage for the reasons set forth in Section 2 of that Legislation, which focuses on the dual reality: (1) that “…maintaining frequent and meaningful communications between people who are incarcerated and family members is key to the successful reintegration of formerly incarcerated individuals, [reducing] recidivism and [facilitating] rehabilitation, which in turn reduces crime and the future costs of imprisonment,” and (2) that the currently prevailing system often burdens or prevents frequent communications between incarcerated persons and family members, thereby weakening “the family and community ties that are necessary for successful reentry into society by persons who were formerly incarcerated and the reduction in crime resulting from successful reentry.”

EtcCampaign.com