This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system.
When Kevin Lott was locked up in the Cuyahoga County Jail in 2021, phone calls were a lifeline. But it was a lifeline with a price tag.
Lott said that phone calls were a necessity for arranging bond, but his top priority after he was sentenced to five years for robbery and associated charges was keeping in touch with his children and their mother. Over the phone, Lott, 35, could try to coordinate gifts for birthdays and holidays and keep track of their progress in school. Sometimes, as he talked to his older children, their attention would be pulled away by tablets or smartphones.
“Listen, little baby, this call costs money,” he’d remind them. “Daddy’s gotta pay to talk to you.”
Calls from the Cuyahoga County Jail cost 16 cents per minute, which is eight times as much as calls from an Ohio state prison. People locked up in the jail say the price of calls has made it a struggle to keep their families together, help care for their children and maintain their mental health. Some studies say regular phone calls also play a role in keeping people from ending up back in jail or prison later on and strengthen incarcerated parents’ bonds with their kids.
Last month, The Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit which researches criminal justice, took a deep dive into the price of phone calls from jails across the country, and how they stack up against the price of calls from state prisons.
They reported that in Ohio, the average phone call from a county jail costs 20 cents per minute, which is 10 times as much per minute as a call from an Ohio prison. That disparity was eclipsed only by Illinois, where a minute of phone time from a jail costs 20 times that for prisons.
Most prisons and jails contract with private companies to provide phone services for people who are locked up. A call from the Cuyahoga County Jail, placed through a company called Securus, costs 16 cents per minute, according to The Prison Policy Initiative. Securus has contracts with the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center and Euclid City Jail for the same rate.
The county’s contract with Securus initially said the company could charge 35 cents per minute, and the jail would receive a commission of 70%. After the Federal Communications Commission set a maximum rate of 16 cents per minute for out-of-state calls for jails of Cuyahoga’s size, the company agreed to an addendum, setting the price of both in-state and out-of-state calls at 16 cents per minute. Two cents per minute go to the jail as commission.
Between December 2021 and November 2022, the Cuyahoga County Jail received almost $300,000 in phone call commissions, according to data provided by the county. County spokesperson Tyler Sinclair said the commission goes into the jail’s general fund for administrative costs. He added that the county agreed to extend the contract until 2027, in exchange for upgrades to communication technology in the jail. That includes tables for prisoners and video call equipment.
Congress passed a law in December letting the FCC set a limit for in-state calls as well. Wanda Bertram with the Prison Policy Initiative said the in-state maximum rate will likely be the same as out-of-state calls, which would mean call prices from the Cuyahoga County Jail won’t change.
Lott said that he would typically burn through a $20 phone card in two days with seven or eight phone calls. That added up to a few hundred dollars each month, which he would rely on loved ones outside jail to pay.
“It’s stressful for them, because they feel like it’s their responsibility,” he said. “If you’ve got a girlfriend, she’ll feel let down if she can’t (pay). It’ll go to her pride, (if) she can’t help you ‘cause she’s got bills.”
Cheaper calls mean more connection with family
Charles Trowbridge, who is currently incarcerated at Allen Correctional Institution, said that during his last six-week stay at the county jail, he spent $5,000. That included several phone calls a day, many to his three-year-old son, who would sometimes read to him over the phone.
He said the calls seemed like a survival necessity as he struggled with mental illness, which was exacerbated by the amount of time prisoners spend locked down in their cells. At his lowest, he would stop calling anyone, taking their failure to share the financial burden as a sign that he was unloved. Trowbridge said he made multiple suicide attempts while in the jail.
“It messes with me a lot, because it’s like if the system is not getting paid, or it’s not making money, then they really don’t care if you talk to your family,” Trowbridge said. “They really don’t care if you spend quality time … with your children that are supposed to be growing up to learn that they’re loved.”
Trowbridge said he had planned to use his savings to start a carpentry business or buy a house. He spent nearly all of it on his legal defense and phone calls. Now, when he’s released, he says he’ll have to start from nothing.
Companies like Securus and ViaPath don’t charge the same rate for every facility. The companies negotiate contracts with county governments to set prices prisoners pay for phone calls, plus other services like video calls and email, and often include payments from the company to the county.
Securus has captured 42% of the market for jail and prison phone services, making it the biggest company in the sector. PPI reports that Securus also handles calls from three facilities in Dallas County, Texas, for just one cent per minute — the cheapest price in the nation, excluding counties where price data was not available, or the county jail footed the bill for calls.
Meanwhile, a call from an Ohio prison through the company ViaPath costs just two cents per minute. The state prison system’s two-cent rate went into effect in 2021, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections’ website.
“Family engagement and communication between incarcerated individuals and their loved ones helps to significantly increase the rate of future success and significantly decrease the rate of recidivism,” Annette Chambers-Smith, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said in a press release that year. “And that is why we decided to lower the costs shouldered by families and friends.”
Lott remembers when the change went into effect. Now he says he talks on the phone at Ross Correctional Institution, where he’s serving his sentence, “all day, every day.”
“You can be there more for your family because you can be on the phone more,” he said. “Some kids need to hear that. They need to hear their father’s voice.”