Minnesota may make prison phone calls free to keep families connected, reduce recidivism

The state corrections department gets a 40% commission for phone calls, or $1.3 million last year

By: - May 8, 2023 1:32 pm

Minnesota lawmakers are considering making prison phone calls free, joining two other states, California and Connecticut, where this photo was taken. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

David J. Ojeda spent 96 months in prison in Minnesota, and during that time, the father of eight said he spent over $40,000 — and cashed out his retirement fund — just to make phone calls to his family.

Ojeda said spending all that money left him in a financial pinch when he was finally released.

“I made the choices that I made to invest the money that I did… so that I could maintain relationships with my children and with my family,” he said. “I don’t regret the choices I made.”

Ojeda recently told his story to Minnesota lawmakers, who are considering making prison phone calls free, joining two other states and about a dozen states considering similar legislation. It would cost the state $3.1 million annually to stop charging prisoners for phone calls. The measure is being considered by a conference committee — comprising members from both chambers — hammering out differences between the House and Senate public safety budget bills.

Minnesota prisoners get two free five-minute phone calls every week, after which they’re charged 4 cents per minute for phone calls, which can be a heavy burden on prisoners and their families, especially given that many come from low-income families. 

The state Department of Corrections contracts with a company called JPay to provide video calls and another company, ViaPath Technologies (formerly Global Tel Link), for phone calls. Inmate calls require more technology than regular calls; all calls are recorded and some inmates have restrictions on who they can contact (such as victims).

Last year, Minnesota prisoners spent $3.3 million on phone calls. The corrections department gets a 40% commission for phone calls, or $1.3 million last year. The DOC says the money is used for educational, recreational and religious programming.

Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten, DFL-St. Paul, said companies charge predatory prices, while the government is complicit because it gets a cut of the fees, creating an incentive for government to maintain the status quo.

“We get in this terrible cycle,” she said. 

She said prisoners earning 25 cents an hour would have to work three hours to talk on the phone for 15 minutes.

“It’s really about keeping our families connected, keeping that connection to the outside, ensuring that people can really thrive when they are released,” she said.

The free calls are among a suite of programs the DFL Legislature is pushing in an effort to make the corrections system less punitive and more rehabilitative. One measure would allow state prisoners to be released earlier if they participate in a rehabilitation plan; another would free thousands of Minnesotans from lengthy probation terms. 

State Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell said Gov. Tim Walz supports making the calls free because preserving bonds with family and friends promotes rehabilitation and reduces recidivism. Most prisoners — about two-thirds, per a University of Minnesota study — are parents. One in six Minnesota children — and 40% of children in foster care — have an incarcerated parent, he said.

The Rev. JaNaé Bates, spokesperson for the progressive ecumenical group ISAIAH, said the average income of the family of an incarcerated person is $19,000.

Her husband has been imprisoned in Ohio for almost 18 years, and her family spends about $4,600 per year on phone calls, she told lawmakers.

“That is unconscionable,” she said. 

The phone calls have enabled her husband to talk about his days, talk to a pastor every Sunday and hear his daughter’s voice for the first time, Bates said. He told Bates, “In here, phone calls keep us alive in every sense of the word.”

Connecting Families Minnesota, a coalition of 18 Minnesota organizations supporting free prison phone calls, said over half of families with an incarcerated member struggle to meet basic housing and food needs. One in three of those families go into debt to stay in touch with incarcerated family members, and women — largely Black and and other people of color — shoulder 87% of the burden.

Family members or friends can also purchase video calls to Minnesota prisoners, for which JPay charges $3.50 per 15-minute call. That’s down from $9.99 per call during the pandemic, during which the DOC received a $1 commission for each call. After the price was dropped, the DOC commission was eliminated.

Minnesota families spend about $4.5 million annually “lining the pockets of the state’s private telecom provider” to talk to their loved ones, the group said.

“Many are trapped in a cycle of debt and poverty, and the financial impact is felt most acutely by Black, Brown, and low-income communities, which are disproportionately impacted by racist over-policing, harsh sentencing guidelines, and mass criminalization,” the group said in a statement to lawmakers. 

“If considered a program,” they wrote about the free calls, “it would be the most cost-effective program to exist and also be the only program available to all people behind bars the day they arrive.”

Jail phone calls even pricier

The cost of phone calls is much higher in Minnesota jails than elsewhere. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the average cost of a 15-minute phone call from a Minnesota jail is $3.10, with the highest at $7.50. As of late 2021, 59 Minnesota jails were charging more for in-state calls than the Federal Communications Commission allows for out-of-state calls.

But as awareness has increased and advocates have pushed for change in the past two decades, prices have gone down. California and Connecticut passed laws making prison phone calls free and about a dozen states are considering similar bills.

Congress passed legislation last year that caps the cost of calls made from prisons and jails, but those caps haven’t been set yet.

“It’s just common sense, whether you’ve been diagnosed with mental illness or just been alive for the last several years, it’s just enough to make someone struggle with their mental health” said Elliot Butay, senior policy coordinator at the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “The phone calls will help people, partners and spouses just get through their days, knowing that their loved ones are going to be OK.”

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.