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For years, reform advocates have been fighting to change one of the most frustrating aspects of prison life: making a phone call.

It’s all thanks to a handful of private equity firms who control the $1.2B market — and can jack up prison phone prices pretty much at will. That means calls cost as much as $1.22 per minute, making it pretty financially difficult to talk to loved ones from the inside.

Unfortunately, yesterday a federal court struck down a proposal by the FCC to cap the cost of these phone calls.

So it’s back to business as usual

Until the late 1990s, prison phone calls were about the same cost as normal calls. But as incarceration rates skyrocketed, private businesses smelled blood in the water.

Two sharks companies in particular — Global Tel-Link Corp. and Securus Technologies (both of which sound like evil corporations in an ‘80s action movie) — have dominated the market, capitalizing on the 500m prison calls made yearly across America.

And they aren’t the only ones profiting off of prisoners’ vulnerable situation: these companies also divvy out millions of dollars in proceeds (or “commissions”) to prisons, as well as state and local governments, giving these institutions incentive to keep the system unregulated.

Of course, this goes much deeper than phone calls

The United States has less than 5% of the world’s population, yet accounts for 25% of the world’s overall prison population with 2.2m Americans locked up in federal, state, or county facilities.

The corrections complex is a massive, $80B per year industry — and phone calls represent just a tiny chunk of that.

But these calls are often prisoners’ only lifeline to the outside world, and the insanely high premiums placed on calls are causing them to fall deeper into financial hardship.

It’s likely the FCC will continue to fight to make calls more affordable by appealing to the Supreme Court. But until then, hard times are only getting harder for America’s inmates.

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