Calls to and from prison inmates are big business. It is now a $1.2 billion-a-year industry dominated by very few companies. In fact it is so lucrative it has caught the interest of private equity firms which now own several of these firms. The private companies which run these phone systems receive commissions, often sizable, from the sheriff’s departments that runthe prisons and the jails in all 50 states. They also set fees, a fee to set up an account, a fee to activate it, maintain it, close it. For example when the wife of an inmate in Pennsylvania deposited $25 in his account, there was a $6.95 service charge to process the $25. The fees are far in excess of comparable pricing on the outside by regular commercial providers. The companies typically charge $1.22 a minute, saying that they need to charge at least 20 cents a minute, while the commercial rate on the outside is around 4 cents a minute. Further the companies compete not based on the quality of service or the price, but on the size of the commission. The sheriffs who favor the system defend it on the basis that it brings in needed revenues. After years of complaints the Federal Communications Commission has finally agreed to investigate an industry which has not been regulated. It will no doubt be a while before they issue a finding, or decide to take action. Of course whatever the FCC does, it will be contested by the companies as well as by the sheriffs who all profit by this system.
Still, nothing changes the principle that profiting from the misery of others may, as in this instance, be legal but is nevertheless immoral.