Why Utah’s inmates get charged for phone calls

Nov 10, 2023, 9:00 AM | Updated: 9:04 am

Inmate phone calls are expensive everywhere. In Utah, some say they can't afford the bill each mont...

FILE - In this June 26, 2014, file photo, an inmate uses a phone at the Cook County Jail in Chicago. A federal appeals court has tossed regulation capping the price of some calls to prison inmates, which can cost families thousands of dollars a year. The court said Tuesday, June 13, 2017, that the FCC lacked authority to set rates for the in-state prison calls. The agency does regulate the price of out-of-state calls for prisoners. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

SALT LAKE CITY — Inmates at the Utah State Correctional Facility and around the country have lamented the cost of phone calls. Some say they forego talking to their families because they just can’t afford the $100-$300 a month of bills.

“We are mindful of the hardships that inmates face, especially when it comes to staying in touch with their families,” said Glen Mills, director of Communications and government relations for the Utah Department of Corrections. “We know that’s an important part of the process of them working on themselves to be able to re-enter society and be successful.”

Because of that, the department provides one 15-minute phone call a week that’s free.

“That is for those who struggle with the cost so they can stay in contact with their family,” said Mills. “After that, it goes up to 10 cents per minute for anywhere in the country.”

To put the cost of these calls in perspective, the department pays its phone service provider, (GTL ViaPath), between $30,000-$35,000 a month.

Video calls are also available to the inmates several days a week at no charge. But that program isn’t working as well because of technical issues.

The Department of Corrections is currently working with providers to try to come up with other communication alternatives.

Where the money from the inmates’ phone calls goes

The revenue from inmate phone calls goes to another vital program in the prison — higher education.

“Fiscal year 2023, phone calls provided a little more $1.7 million for our higher education program,” Mills said.

The total spending for the higher education program was $2 million.

“We see that as another vital step toward making a successful transition,” he continued. “Through higher education funding, we’re able to provide inmates with various degrees and vocational certificates, like automotive repair, residential construction, building trades. This helps give them the skills they need to get a job when they get out. We know that getting a job vastly increases the rate of success when someone re-enters the community.”

The Department of Corrections has programs with Davis Technical College, Salt Lake Community College, Snow College and Uintah Basin Vocational College.

Demand is so high for phones the Department of Corrections had to increase the number of phones at the Utah State Correctional Facility.

“We added 160 additional phone lines to the original 230,” Mills said. “So the demand is really high for this.”

Why is this controversial?

The policy of charging for inmate phone calls is controversial because the bills can be a hardship for some inmates and their families.

“I understand the concern and how it can impact some more than others,” Mills explained. “That’s why we do provide some free phone time every week for any inmate that has a challenge in covering those costs. We really do believe that what the money is used for is another crucial step. So to give to one would be taking from another.”

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Why Utah’s inmates get charged for phone calls