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Curious Alaska: What happens to the money Alaskans pay for phone calls with people in jail or prison?

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Curious Alaska: Where does the money that DOC makes off inmate phone calls go?

In Alaska, the majority of money that families spend on phone calls with incarcerated people goes right back to paying for the imprisonment itself: for inmate towels, food, bedding and drug testing. The rest enriches a private equity-owned corporation called Securus Technologies Ltd.

It works like this: All phone calls from any Alaska jail or prison have to be made through Texas-based Securus. For at least 30 years, Securus — or its precursor company Evercom — has been Alaska’s prison phone service contractor, according to the state Department of Corrections.

Especially during the pandemic, when in-person visiting was banned for more than a year, Securus controls most live communication between prisoners and the outside world.

Why can’t people in prisons just pick up the phone and call like anyone else? Prison phone providers monitor and record most phone calls, which the correctional departments assert is important for safety. (Calls between inmates and their attorneys are never supposed to be monitored, but that happened in Alaska in 2014.)

The cost burden falls not on the inmates, but on their family and friends outside. That’s because incarcerated people are not allowed to pay for the calls themselves — only someone on the outside can set up an account and feed money into it for inmates to make calls.

Costs of calls vary widely, depending on where the caller lives. In Alaska, local calls are supposed to be capped at $1 for 15 minutes and long-distance calls at $4. Bills also include various taxes and fees, which users say add up. Some family members report spending hundreds of dollars per month funding conversations with their incarcerated loved ones.

Collectively, family members and loved ones of incarcerated people spent nearly $1.9 million in Securus phone calls to Alaska jails and prisons in the 2020 fiscal year, according to data from the Alaska Department of Corrections.

DOC has collected about $773,000 in the current fiscal year, through March, according to department spokeswoman Betsy Holley.

Securus’ contract with the state operates under a commission system that guarantees most of the revenues for phone calls return to state coffers. According to data from DOC, roughly $1.5 million in Securus revenues was returned to the state in 2020. Securus pocketed the remaining $427,000.

“Commission” systems that guarantee states a cut of the profits for choosing a prison phone contractor are common in the industry. Critics call them a system of kickbacks that serve to keep costs high for customers — the loved ones of incarcerated people — even as the cost of the service gets cheaper on the free market.

So what does the money get used for?

The DOC says it spent the $1.5 million on defraying the “cost of incarceration.” That includes “inmate food, clothing, bedding, indigent supplies such as toiletries, program supplies such as papers/pencils/etc, drug testing supplies and services, institutional staffing costs, maintenance, etc. as well as other institutional operating costs,” according to Holley.

Angela Hall runs a support group for the families of incarcerated people in Alaska. Her husband is serving a long sentence at Wildwood Correctional Center in Kenai.

She’d like to see DOC investigate cheaper ways for families to talk to incarcerated people. People who can’t afford it spend hundreds of dollars per month on prison phone calls, she said, and the department has no incentive to make it cheaper.

“The DOC uses that kickback they’re getting. They’re not interested in hearing about cost savings,” Hall said. “Cost savings for us means a loss of revenue for them.”

She’d also like to see the Securus funding spent on improvements to communication for families of prisoners, such as infrastructure for video calling. But she’s not optimistic, she said: The status quo benefits the Department of Corrections and the corporation chosen to provide the services.

“These companies are multibillion-dollar companies,” she said. “They are making money off of the most vulnerable in society.”

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