Five years ago, when her nephew was sentenced to a second stint in prison in Arizona, Blu Dux began a twice-a-week ritual of talking to him on the phone.
To make it work, Dux had to set up a landline to accept collect calls and pay an average of $5 per call.
“I’m trying to create a bond with him, and it gets broken any time we don’t have communication,” said Dux, who lives on Kauai. “I know it helps his sense of support — being anchored by having somebody on the outside who is concerned for his welfare.”
In late 2015, the Federal Communications Commission moved to alleviate the burden of inmates and their relatives like Dux by capping prison phone rates: 11 cents to 22 cents per minute for both interstate and in-state calls.
According to the FCC, the rate caps would have reduced the average costs from $2.96 to $1.65 for a 15-minute in-state call and from $3.15 to $1.65 for a 15-minute long-distance call.
The FCC’s action was hailed as a victory for prison-reform advocates, who had waged a years-long campaign against what they said were predatory practices by a handful of companies that dominate the prison phone business.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Washington, D.C., Circuit stepped in last month to void the rate caps, ruling that the FCC had exceeded its authority.
Now, after years of pushing for action at the federal level, the advocates are directing their attention to state and local governments which have the authority to regulate in-state calls from prison.
Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, says Hawaii has a vested interest in voluntarily adopting the rate caps, given that inmates who maintain close ties to family and friends are more likely to stay out of trouble once they are released.
“The responsibility of the state is not only to incarcerate but to make sure that, when people come out, they have a chance of actually making it,” Brady said. “One of the ways to do that is by maintaining connections, so it makes no sense for us to keep the calls unaffordable.”
In Hawaii, the cost of a 15-minute call from prison can now be as much as $9.10, including fees.
According to the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, inmates at the state’s eight prisons and jails are charged 13 cents per minute for local calls, while calls to neighbor islands cost 21 cents per minute.
Hawaiian Telcom, which runs the phone system, also charges a fee of up to $5.95 every time the phone account needs to be reloaded.
At the Saguaro Correctional Center, an Arizona prison where about 1,600 Hawaii prisoners are housed, the phone system is run by CenturyLink, a Louisiana-based company that charges 21 cents to 25 cents per minute for interstate calls.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the costs of prison phone calls are even steeper elsewhere in the country — with hundreds of county jails charging $15 to $18 for a 15-minute call.
The FCC’s efforts to rein in the costs have faced stiff opposition from a handful of dominant companies in the prison phone business — including Global Tel*Link and Securus Technologies, which together corner 90 percent of the market nationwide.
The companies have defended the pricing, saying it’s necessary to cover the expense of the monitoring technology.
Another driver of costs are “site commissions,” which phone companies pay to the operators of correctional facilities in exchange for exclusive contracts.
A coalition of law enforcement officials petitioned the FCC in 2015 to preserve the commissions, arguing that they offset the cost of maintaining the phone system and other amenities.
Still, some states have eliminated site commissions or taken other steps to adopt rate caps. In Washington, for instance, a 15-minute call from a prisoner used to cost as much as $18 — now, it costs $1.65.
Hawaii state Sen. Will Espero introduced Senate Bill 2199 last year, proposing to eliminate site commissions that the Department of Public Safety receives from Hawaiian Telcom, which turns over about 15 percent of its revenue from inmate calls.
During a five-year period starting in February 2010, more than 1.6 million calls were made by inmates, resulting in gross revenue of more than $3.3 million for Hawaiian Telcom — and the commission payments of nearly $500,000.
Nolan Espinda, the director of the Department of Public Safety, opposed the bill, pointing out that the commission payments fund the Hawaii Statewide Automated Victim Information and Notification system, which allows victims and others to be notified confidentially when the custody and parole status of offenders changes.
“We keep talking about re-entry, recidivism … and then we do everything we possibly can to make them virtually impossible.” — Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons
The bill’s passage, Espinda warned, essentially would have meant “the demise of the SAVIN system.”
In the end, the bill failed to clear the Senate Public Safety Committee — to the dismay of Brady, who now argues that the Legislature should take up a similar bill next year.
Clarence Nishihara, chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, said he’s willing to consider such a bill, but it will be a tough sell to pass a budget increase to make up for the loss of the commission payments to keep the SAVIN system afloat.
“Every year, it looks like the budget is really tight, and they’ve been cutting other programs,” Nishihara said. “Already, people are concerned that we pay so much for prisons, when we’re cutting education and other services. So I’m not sure how we’re going to square that circle.”
Brady says the Legislature should recognize the importance of making inmate calls affordable.
“It’s really frustrating to me because the Legislature often allocates piles of money to some things and ignores the problems that are right in front of their faces,” Brady said. “I mean, we keep talking about re-entry, recidivism — and that we support them. And then we do everything we possibly can to make them virtually impossible.”