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Calls from Kentucky prisons become cheaper for some, more expensive for others under new rate cap

Illustration by Justice Levine

Calls from Kentucky prisons became more expensive for some people recently, as the company that provides telecommunications services in those facilities adjusted prices to comply with anew federal rate cap that went into effect October 26.

The Kentucky Department of Corrections contracts with Securus Technologies to provide phone calls from state prisons. The DOC doesn’t pay Securus for this service. Instead, the company charges individual callers a per-minute rate and pays a portion of its revenue back to the state in commissions. TheKentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found in July that Securus paid Kentucky $3.2 million in commissions during 2020, when in-person visitation was suspended at facilities due to the coronavirus.

In new rules adopted in October, the Federal Communications Commission capped interstate calls from prisons at 12 cents per minute and calls from large local jails, which negotiate their own contracts with service providers such as Securus, at 14 cents. Contractors can tack on an additional 2 cents per minute to account for commissions payments to government agencies, bringing the total allowable charges to 14 and 16 cents per minute for state prisons and local jails, respectively.

“Egregiously high rates and charges and associated unreasonable practices for the most basic and essential communications capability — telephone service — impedes incarcerated peoples' ability to stay connected with family and loved ones, clergy, and counsel, and financially burdens incarcerated people and their loved ones,” the FCC said in its order.

This means rates will change for people making calls from Kentucky prisons:

  • Long-distance calls decrease from 21 cents a minute to 14 cents a minute.
  • Local calls increase from 10 cents a minute to 14 cents a minute.  

Calls are also subject to taxes and other fees that drive up the costs of staying in touch.

Securus spokesperson Jade Trombetta said in an email that the company offered the DOC a range of options to bring calls under compliance with the new cap, and the state chose to raise the cost of local calls to match the cap. 

“The state chose a plan that included the reduction of their non-local rates from $0.21 to $0.14 providing savings on a majority of the calling volume,” Trombetta said. “Additionally, in order to standardize pricing as well as support existing programs at the facility the KYDOC chose the same single rate of $0.14 per minute for local rates which is an upward adjustment of $0.04 per minute.”

Lisa Lamb, deputy commissioner and spokesperson at the Kentucky DOC, said in an email that long-distance calls represent 65% of the calls from Kentucky prisons and that this rate change would result in a reduction of $400,000 in commissions per year.

Mekayla Breland’s fiancé, who is currently serving time at the Green River Correctional Complex, noticed the increase in cost before she did.

Breland used a third-party service that allowed her to pay the local rate for phone calls from Green River, which is a three-hour drive from her home in northern Kentucky. The service stopped working, and she started paying the new rate of 14 cents a minute in October.

The new rate is cheaper than what a regular long-distance call would cost, but more expensive than what she had been paying. 

“It's kind of nice that they are trying to make efforts (to lower costs), in a way,” Breland said. “But I stand my ground, and I believe that the state shouldn’t hurt families for wanting to communicate with their loved one, because I feel like that’s just a right. Everyone should be able to communicate.”

Also in October, The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau fined Securus subsidiary JPay $6 million for charging costly fees to access money on prepaid debit cards incarcerated people had no choice but to use.

Securus will also begin providing other for-profit services for the Department of Corrections, according to Lamb. The company is in the process of introducing tablets through DOC prisons that come equipped with voice and email messaging as well as video visitation. According to its contract, the state will keep up to 50% of the revenue on these new services in commissions.

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