Inmates' debt to society more than just time: Price of phone calls brings in millions per year

Posted: 9:47 AM, Aug 05, 2021
Updated: 2021-08-06 17:37:57-04

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With moisture beading from her brow, a humid Milwaukee morning is the last thing Ouida Lock is sweating today.

“I haven’t been able to put money on the phone this month,” Lock said. “I’ll be putting some on this Friday because I had some other things come up. That just had to be put on the back burner.”

Lock isn’t putting money aside for her cell phone bill, that’s taken care of. The bill she’s more concerned about is so she can talk to her two sons, incarcerated in Wisconsin State Prisons for different crimes, no less than two hours away.

“My oldest son is at Oshkosh Correctional, he’s on his 12th calendar,” Lock said. “My youngest son is on his 11th calendar and he’s in Jackson Correctional in Black River Falls. I talk to them both at least three times a week. My baby calls a little more than my older son does.”

Inmates' debt to society more than just time

In Wisconsin, the state’s prisons charge six cents per minute for phone calls. Lock says the maximum amount of time they can spend on each call is about 20 minutes. That totals $1.20 for each call. Talking to both sons three times per week means she’s paying $7.20 per week just to hear their voices.

She’s been paying $374.40 a year to communicate with them since 2017, totaling roughly $1,123.20. From 2010 to 2017 though, she was paying 12 cents per minute, when the Department of Corrections rate, set by the FCC was different. For those eight years, she spent about $5,990.40.

“I can’t even fathom how much money has been spent,” Lock said. “I know I could have bought a house by now.”

The cost of a phone call

This is having a disproportionate impact because of the racial wealth gap. Milwaukee is home to the largest racial wealth gap in the country; where African Americans make 42 cents to every white dollar. As a state, African Americans makeup 6.7 percent of the total population, but account for about 38 percent of the prison population.

It’s an issue more than a decade in the making for Lock’s family, caught in the criminal justice cycle. Both of her sons were convicted after separate shootings injured people in 2010 and 2011. Before that, Ouida served about three years for misappropriation of identity in 2007.

Ouida and her two sons
Ouida Lock's two sons, Jeffrey and Antonio, are serving sentences for two separate shootings.

She owns her mistakes, as do her sons. But because she knows what it’s like to be behind bars, she knows how important conversations with loved ones can be.

“On some days, it felt like life or death,” Lock said, speaking of her own experience looking forward to phone calls in prison. “Me having contact with them on the regular helps me keep abreast of what’s going on in the institution. When you’re not able to talk to your children or loved ones who are incarcerated, anything could be going on. It gives me a level of comfort when I’m able to talk to them.’

One silver lining during the pandemic, Lock has been able to see her sons over video twice a week. Because of pandemic protocols, the DOC stopped in-person visits to limit contact. Now, Lock is able to flip on Zoom on her phone or laptop and see her sons. It provides relief both emotionally and financially.

“Hello my handsome son,” Lock said with a smile. “How are you doing?”

Inmates' debt to society more than just time

Lock allowed the I-Team to sit in during her Zoom conversation with her oldest son, Jeffrey. He told us about how important these conversations are.

“It’s very important,” He said. “It’s vital to a man’s mental health inside of here. Just being able to talk to my mother, my grandmother, the kids.”

The Zoom calls offer an extra layer of closeness. Lock and her son were able to connect in a way they wouldn’t otherwise be able to.

Laughing at her new hairstyle.

“They’re just little twists,” Lock said. “That little Afrocentric.”

“You just losing your mind,” Jeffrey said with a chuckle. “Talking, Afrocentric.”

For Jeffrey, he’s serving 16 years for shooting someone during a robbery. That happened eleven years ago. He says, he has been reformed and is excited to show that to his loved ones once he gets out. For now, he depends on calls like these to stay connected.

Jeffrey Hudson talks with his mom over Zoom from prison
Ouida's son, Jeffrey, during a Zoom interview from prison. Jeffrey sees her twice a week over Zoom because of pandemic restrictions on in-person visits.

“It’s very important,” Jeffrey said. “It’s vital to a man’s mental health inside of here. Just being able to talk to my mother, grandmother, the kids. Just hearing how my mother’s doing, my grandmother’s doing, how the kids are doing, progressing in school and just growing.”

On top of hearing how people are evolving on the outside, Jeffrey can’t wait to share how he’s changing.

“I like to explain where I’m at in my life,” Jeffrey said. “How I’ve changed, why I’ve changed, who has helped me change, things like that. I’m growing every day. That’s important that they understand, I won’t be the same person I was before I came in.”

"Many of these individuals also have PTSD or other mental health conditions or really just may be struggling," Melissa Ludin, Regional Director for the ACLU's Smart Justice Campaign said. "Family unification and keeping these people together is important."

Ludin says that kind of communication when people are on the inside can prevent them from coming back once they get out.

"If you have somebody that doesn't have a support system or connection with family, who were able to maintain a connection with their children and they come home, they're having to rebuild a relationship with family members they didn't have while incarcerated," Ludin said. "The pressure to get employment, finding a place to live, some people get released to a homeless shelter. If we could see more people have that family unification or that support throughout the process, we know it will certainly be more helpful."

Those types of connections help Jeffrey share his own progress and already start proving to his mother that he's changed.

“It makes me feel good because I want her to know she isn’t a failure,” Jeffrey said. “I’m not a failure. We all make mistakes. When I was growing up, she made mistakes. When I grew up, I made mistakes. We’re all human. For us to embark on the journey together to success, her taking prison reform seriously and being here to give me advice and talk to me when I’m down, to lift me up, that’s special to me. It means something to me.”

Lock’s entire demeanor changed when she got on the phone with her son. The humid room she was in could have been a freezer. She was no longer sweating, no longer stressed about putting money on the phone. She had her son right there in front of her.

But normally, on the phone, every second quite literally counts.

According to a study by the Prison Policy Initiative, the prison phone industry generates $1.4 billion per year. According to the most recent biennial budget, the State of Wisconsin collected $3,224,600 in telephone revenues in 2019. The State DOC received $1,587,979.69 as part of that revenue in its contract with CenturyLink Public Communications, Inc.

The State DOC declined to be interviewed but provided information for this story. While the DOC received nearly $1.6 million of the $3.2 million from these phone calls, they say that money is essentially reinvested into the residents at their facilities.

“Any revenue DOC receives that is driven by purchases of persons in our care is spent for the benefit of persons in our care,” John Beard, Director of Communications for DOC said in a statement. “In addition to communication-related services and equipment, it goes towards things like recreation and dayroom equipment, resources and materials for hobby projects, games and puzzles, etc. It goes back into the institutions.”

The Wisconsin DOC operates differently than county jails. The DOC typically houses people who have been convicted of more serious crimes, serving time longer than a year. County jails typically have individuals awaiting trial or serving terms under a year. At the local level, the prices they charge per minute for phone calls tend to be much higher.

In Milwaukee and Racine Counties, they both charge 21 cents per minute, 3.5 times more than the state DOC. In Waukesha County, it’s 37 cents per minute and Kenosha County comes in at 50 cents per minute.

The cost of a phone call in jail varies

Securus Technologies has contracts with 25 county jail facilities in Wisconsin. They say current rates are as low as five cents per minute and as high as 95 cents per minute but will soon be reduced to 21 cents per minute. The company provided a statement on its efforts to lower the average cost per minute in the facilities they work with.

"Over the past few months, Securus has worked with eight Wisconsin County Sheriff's to remove the high-first minute rate and offer a universal per-minute rate to make calls more affordable. We look forward to working with more WI County Sheriff's to ensure communications are accessible for incarcerated individuals and their loved ones."

Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission put a cap on how much prisons and jails can charge for interstate phone calls at 12 and 14 cents per minute respectively. However, according to the FCC, “Rate caps apply only to interstate long-distance calls, but not to in-state long distance, local or international calls” and “Providers are allowed to impose the additional service charges… in connection with interstate or international calling services for incarcerated individuals.”

So local jails are able to pass taxes and regulatory fees on to consumers directly with no markup. They’re also allowed to charge fees for loading money into the account necessary to have these phone conversations.

Lock says this ends up being about $3 to $6 more, every time she puts more money onto the account, which she does several times a month.

She had planned to put money into her account following our interview for the first time in weeks because she couldn’t afford to do it before.

“It adds up,” Lock said. “That $5.95 connection fee is a lot to some people. If you have a grandmother or mom on disability, social security, that’s $6 plus putting $10 on the phone. That’s $15.95 that one just doesn’t have. People may look at that as really minor or that’s not a lot. Anybody should be able to do that. No, anybody can’t do that. They just don’t have it. That $15.95 makes a difference in whether you eat or don’t eat.”

Milwaukee House of Corrections quote
The Milwaukee House of Corrections is working to eliminate communication barriers for its residents.

The Milwaukee House of Corrections says it’s something they’re working on. They too declined an interview with the I-Team, but HOC Superintendent Chantell Jewell provided this statement on the topic:

“The Milwaukee County House of Corrections recognizes the importance of maintaining communication between loved ones and individuals in our care. To that end, we provide two free phone calls per week to persons in our care. In addition, as more County residents became vaccinated this year, we worked to quickly, and safely, to re-open the visitors’ center at the House of Correction where individuals can speak with their incarcerated family and friends via free video calls.”

In 2020, the Milwaukee HOC received $867,217.87 in phone revenue. The HOC says it uses this revenue for its overall operating budget.

The HOC says, in the month of May, 80,899 calls were made, totaling 696,511 minutes. The number of residents in the facility is always fluctuating, but Jewell says at its highest, there were 835 people in the HOC. According to that high, the residents averaged just over 3 calls per day, for 8.6 minutes per call.

At the current HOC rate, that’s $1.81 per call. In the entire month, those calls amount to roughly $146,267.31.

“Prison is a business,” Lock said. “It has nothing to do with corrections or with rehabilitating. It’s all business.”

A lucrative business when it comes to telephone contracts. The HOC says they signed a 5 year contract with Inmate Calling Solutions (IC Solutions), for $7.3 million.

The HOC says it does not have any programs to help low-income families with phone calls, outside of the current pandemic parameters in place now, but do have opportunities for free postage when writing letters. It hopes to continue the free video calls, even after the pandemic is over. Something echoed by the State DOC.

For Lock, she’s hoping the free Zoom calls continue, so she can continue seeing both of her sons from her home. At the moment, she’s able to save a little bit of money by not loading her phone account, though she wants to always be available when her sons need her. While it provides some anxiety to her, not knowing what they’re going through, Jeffrey understands when she can’t put money in the account.

“I’m grateful to be able to put the money on the phone myself,” He said. “Or I get two free calls since COVID, but I don’t know when they’ll take that away. I practice responsibility to be able to call her, just in case. I know she’s trying to be a grandmother, support my brother and it’s a lot for a single parent, a single grandmother, trying to make it who has to focus on themselves. It’s about patience.”

Patience they’ll both need before they can communicate without thinking of prison.

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