Communications Services

July 2023

It is internationally recognized that all incarcerated people have the right to communicate with those who are not incarcerated—especially family—under the protection of privacy. Communication with loved ones is crucial for the well-being of those who are incarcerated. Studies have shown that maintaining contact during incarceration leads to lower recidivism rates. The main ways for people who are incarcerated to contact family is through visitation, letters, phone calls, and, increasingly, video "visitation" and tablet services. Usually at no cost to jails and prisons, video "visitation" contracts are almost always bundled with other services, such as tablet, email, commissary, and phone services.

A majority of prison communications companies are owned by private equity firms. Private equity firms have consolidated prison communication services—as well as other services—by creating very few large companies. These companies drive up costs for incarcerated individuals and their loved ones, while lowering the quality of the services provided.

The prison telecommunications market is dominated by three companies that, together, control the overwhelming majority of the prison communications industry:

Because these companies hold a captive market, incarcerated people and their loved ones have no choice but to pay exploitive costs for the companies' services. Often, this financial burden falls on family members, as incarcerated individuals call collect or need money transferred to them in order to pay for calls. In some cases, the push to privatize communication services has come at the expense of in-person visitation, further preventing incarcerated people from connecting with the "outside."

The companies that provide communication services to prisons enjoy a state-sponsored monopoly. Once they are awarded a contract, the cost of phone and video calls is set by these companies without competition. Rates and fees can vary significantly between states. The major source of revenue for these companies is not the per-minute rate of calls, but rather the hidden fees involved in registering an account, adding money to an account, receiving paper bills, maintaining an account, or closing out an account.

Under most communication services contracts, all installation, operation, and surveillance costs fall on callers, while the contracted companies pay said carceral facility commission, commonly referred to as "kickbacks." Therefore, contracts are granted based on the highest financial return to the government rather than lower rates for callers. Securus Technologies, one of the largest companies operating in this sector, admitted to providing $1.3 billion in commission to prisons and detention centers between 2004 and 2014. These government kickbacks are revenue made from fees paid by incarcerated individuals and their loved ones. In states that forbid such kickbacks, phone companies charge lower rates.

Phone Services in Prisons

Incarcerated individuals pay the highest phone rates in the U.S. As of 2021, a 15-minute phone call can cost between $1.80 and $6, depending on the state. As of 2023, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates all interstate communication, caps 15-minute interstate calls to $3.15. The FCC has also issued caps on ancillary fees (additional charges to have, open, fund, and close accounts). These caps follow in the wake of a sustained campaign. In 2015, the FCC issued rules aimed at further reducing phone rates, regulating not only interstate calls, but also local calls. However, in 2017, due to pushback from prison phone companies CenturyLink (now Lumen Technologies), Global Tel Link (now ViaPath Technologies), Pay-Tel Communications, Securus Technologies, and Telmate, an appeals court rolled back the FCC's regulations on intrastate communication. (Intrastate communication accounted for more than 80% of phone calls as of 2017.)

As part of their services, these companies provide investigative surveillance tools to law enforcement and prison authorities. Securus is known for providing technology like Investigator Pro, which is used to extract and digitize the voices of incarcerated people for placement on a database that can be used to search calls and recordings to identify "voices of interest." In 2018, GTL (now ViaPath Technologies) was exposed for recording over 1,000 phone calls designated as "do not record" at Orange County Central Men's jail. While the company blamed "human error," it was subsequently discovered that it had done the same thing twice in previous years. Similarly, in 2015, after a hacker leaked 70 million phone calls placed by incarcerated individuals, it was discovered that 14,000 of those calls were between incarcerated people and their attorneys—calls that should never have been recorded in the first place. LEO Technologies, a private company based in Los Angeles, provides prisons with monitoring software that automatically downloads, analyzes, and transcribes all recorded phone calls and then "proactively flags" conversations for review. Prison phone companies provide surveillance tools as part of their business model: Users get access to communication with loved ones, while prisons and detention centers get access to user data.

Video "Visitations"

Prisons and detention centers are increasingly using video calls as a form of "visitation," either via designated kiosks or through tablets. While video calls can potentially offer more and better communication opportunities, they have, in reality, created additional barriers. The communication services companies that dominate this market are the same ones that provide traditional prison phone services.

Unlike with in-person visitation, which is free, video "visitations" are expensive, costing between $0.20 and $1.50 per minute. As is the case with phone charges, some of the fees involved with video "visitation" are funneled back to states and counties in the form of commissions or "kickbacks." The companies contracted for video calls are typically the same ones that provide phone and other services to carceral facilities as part of a "bundle" contract. Companies usually do not charge these facilities anything for added video services, instead pushing the cost onto users.

In many cases, prisons use video calls to reduce in-person visitation or to ban in-person visitation altogether. As of 2015, 74% of jails that had implemented video "visitations" had also banned in-person visits, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Securus used to include a regular clause in its contracts mandating that prisons eliminate in-person visits. In 2015, Securus ended this practice; however, most prisons continue to terminate in-person visitation once they contract with the company. For example, in 2017, the Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) signed a contract with JPay, a subsidiary of Securus, to install multimedia kiosks and tablets at no cost to the state. The FDC then began encouraging families to replace their in-person visits with video calls and later limited in-person visitation to every other weekend. Both the State of Florida and Securus stand to profit from video "visitation" services and related fees.

Video technology introduces additional barriers, as video calls in prison are not comparable to commercial video calls that take place in non-carceral settings. These calls tend to operate unreliably. A 2019 Prison Policy Initiative briefing revealed that video "visitation" is often disrupted by computer and other technical issues. Furthermore, families without access to computers or high-speed internet, or for whom English is not their first language, experience extra difficulty navigating such technology. The process of video calling can also be challenging for many. Calls usually need to be scheduled and paid for in advance and take place in separate terminals for both the incarcerated individual and visitor—unless the visitor is able to use a personal device.


Another growing trend within the prison communication services industry is the use of tablets. These tablets are specifically designed for use in prisons and are not comparable to commercial products; they provide very limited functional access through specialized web platforms and apps designed for prisons, which are able to monitor and filter all communications.

Since these tablets rely on a captive market, they, too, are designed to maximize profit for communications companies at the expense of incarcerated people and their loved ones. Tablet use also contributes to the commissions that companies pay back to states and counties, resulting in profiteering from resources that would otherwise be free. For example, prison tablets require "electronic stamps" to send emails. The cost of the stamps depends on the state and prison, but they usually cost about $0.50 per message. Each "stamp" is good for one page of text. Pictures require an additional stamp and short videos cost three stamps. These stamps fluctuate in price, unlike regular postage stamps, in order to maximize profit around holidays, such as Mother's Day. With many prisons receiving an average of $0.05 per message, prison systems that use JPay stand to collect $710,000 per year on e-messages alone.

As is the case with phone calls, electronic message are surveilled and stored. To send an electronic message, the message first has to be sent to the prison system for approval. If approved, the cost is deducted from the recipient's account and the message is sent to them. In 2015, 60,000 JPay tablets were being used by incarcerated people across 11 states, often sold at kiosks in prisons for $69.99. In January 2018, JPay struck a deal with the New York Department of Corrections (NYSDOCCS) to give out free tablets to incarcerated people as part of an electronic financial system pilot that would enable family and friends to send money directly to incarcerated individuals. Although the tablets were free, all tablet services, including financial services, video calling, and email messaging, incurred costs. Games that would otherwise be free on a regular phone can cost up to $7.99 on a prison tablet. GTL (now ViaPath Technologies) charges $24.99 for a monthly music subscription, while non-incarcerated individuals can pay as little as $9.99 per month for Apple's premium music subscription. In New York alone, JPay is expected to generate $9 million in revenue within five years.

Phone Services for Detained Immigrants

Detained immigrants are subjected to the same exploitative communications services to which those held in non-immigration jails and prisons are. Per-minute phone call rates for detained immigrants are similar to those for people incarcerated in the non-immigration criminal punishment system; they cost up to $13 for a 15-minute phone call. Though ICE cannot accept commissions from communications companies, jails and federal prisons that contract with ICE can and do profit from such commissions. As with those incarcerated in non-immigration jails and prisons, detained immigrants are beholden to these exploitative services. Often, access to phone services is the only way for immigrants separated from their families to confirm that their relatives are safe. Additionally, detained immigrants lack access to court-appointed attorneys and thus rely on phone services to seek out representation.

Talton Communications, an Alabama-based telecommunications company, develops communications technology exclusively for the prison industry and has a "proactive relationship" with ICE for the installation and maintenance of phone services at all ICE detention centers throughout the country. While company provides a pro bono legal hotline to ICE detention centers—which it allegedly shut down after being featured on the television show Orange is the New Black—it does so in exchange for being able to charge high rates for all other calls. Talton holds a contract worth a potential $31.4 million with ICE for "non-citizens communication services"; the contract is set to end in August 2023.

Additional Communications Services

As digital devices—namely tablets and kiosks—become more prevalent in prisons, more companies have begun to offer services that use these technologies. These services include mail scanning, legal research tools, television services, and remote court appearances. Advertised as special services, they are touted for purportedly promoting safety and security. In reality many of these services are offered with as a means of increasing surveillance.

Smart Communications, for example, offers prisons and detention centers postal mail processing services. Smart Communications' services have eliminated physical mail at over 50,000 state prisons and 100 county jails by advertising them as a way to eliminate "contraband" and "secret communication" and reduce labor for prison authorities. Through this service, mail is filtered through the company's security system and subsequently electronically sent to incarcerated individuals, who can view their "mail" on a tablet or via a kiosk. The company then creates a searchable database through which prisons can surveil incarcerated individuals' communications.

Legal research engines, such as Fastcase, LexisNexis, and WestLaw are increasingly replacing prison libraries. These research engines provide limited databases with no internet access, available via computer kiosk. In 2017, the South Dakota Department of Corrections (DOC) closed its prison law libraries and canceled its legal assistance contracts when all incarcerated individuals were given a free tablet with access to LexisNexis's legal research services. In 2018, people incarcerated in South Dakota filed two lawsuits against the DOC, alleging that their tablets were prone to technical issues and that the inaccessibility of the tablets for certain individuals violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. In addition to the tablets' intermittent usability, incarcerated individuals also lost access to professional legal advice—vital for those who cannot read or write.

Other prison services companies, including Correctional Cable TV, a satellite TV provider specifically for the prison industry, and CourtCall, a technology company that offers a "secure video, audio and telephonic" platform for the prison and court systems, offer television services and remote court appearance technologies.