Grant Marr was just 14 when his mother was convicted for embezzlement and sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2004.
Still in school, Marr began living with friends and then his estranged biological father in California. It was only years later in college that he could finally afford to set up an account with prison telecommunications company Global Tel Link (GTL), the sole provider for prisons in the state, to speak with his mom for a few short minutes at a time.
But after establishing the account, the sheer expense of phone bills, on average much higher than normal non-prison rates across the country, coupled with the "dropped calls, large required prepayments" and "tons of hoops to jump through," began to wreak havoc on the emotions of a young man already forced to grow up quicker than his peers.
"I was just a teenager trying to talk to his mom for a few minutes, and it seemed like I was the one being punished," he told VICE News. "As if I wasn't going through enough already."
Inflated prison call costs fall under a band of often ignored inmate-related issues that are underscored by a common and society-accepted narrative that criminals don't deserve rights, say prisoner advocates. But it's families and especially children, 2.7 million of whom currently have an incarcerated parent in America, that are among those most affected.
On September 25, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), announced that it is looking to change the current inmate calling regime. Previously, in August 2013, the FCC took substantive steps by capping the costs on all collect interstate prison collect calls at 25 cents per minute, which it says has reduced call costs by up to 40 percent. The new laws will be the next step in addressing decades-long demands for reform from prisoners and advocates alike.
For families who can spend up to $1 a minute on the line to loved ones inside prison walls, the FCC ruling last year was a welcome start. But the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) said the changes only affect about 15 percent of calls nationwide and does not cover in-state calls, which make up the bulk of costs in the multi-million dollar prison communications industry.
Resistance to change has been primarily voiced by the prisons and telecommunications companies benefiting from the prevailing commissions-based model in 41 states, HRDC associate director Alex Friedmann told VICE News.
The system as it stands, is based on a competitive bidding process. Most state prisons receive commissions from contracted companies somewhere in the range of 20 to 100 percent of all phone call costs (the average is close to 42 percent), which equals around $128 million per year, according to HRDC statistics. Usually prisons will contract companies who pay more commissions. Only nine states do not accept any financial return from inmate calls.
The families of prisoners who assume the bulk of these costs, "tend to be impoverished, they're poor people in general, Friedmann said. For them, "the commission-based model is grossly unfair."
"In any other context it'd be illegal, it would be a kickback, but in this context this is just business as usual," he said.
In response to the FCC's decision to cap interstate call costs last year, several prison call providers filed a joint suit challenging the order, currently pending in the US Court of Appeals.
Among the challengers is Virginia-based giant, GTL, which holds contracts with the Department of Corrections in 28 states and over 2,100 facilities.
A class action filed against GTL in a New Jersey federal court in August 2013 alleges that the company buys phone time at three-tenths of a cent per minute, but marks up these charges to over 30 cents a minute for people who collect calls from inmates. The "state's 40 percent cut of those phone fees comes to more than $4 million per year," prosecutors said in court documents.
GTL did not respond to numerous requests from VICE News for comment.
Another company appealing the FCC regulations, Texas-based Securus Technologies, which serves around 2,600 correctional facilities in 45 states, also did not answer inquiries from VICE News, but indicated on its website it is currently complying with the FCC's caps on long distance calls.
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For prisoners, especially those sent interstate, family visits are not always possible, and phone calls become the primary way to communicate with the outside world.
Marr's mother, Marianna Gray, 62, told VICE News the system makes it "harder and harder for family time." Although she was a non-violent first-time offender, Gray had no special concessions in prison and it took seven years for her to successfully petition the state for private visits with her son.
"Sometimes I would be the only woman in a room of eight who had not murdered someone," Gray, who was paroled in 2012 and currently lives in the Bay Area, said of her time in jail. In those years, the few phone calls she made or received were her lifeline.
"They say that what they really want is family reunification, but in fact they make it almost impossible by charging so horribly much for our families to talk to us," she added.
Advocates say that an overhaul of the system goes beyond fairness to prisoners and their families, but could also benefit society as a whole by lowering crime and reducing recidivism rates.
A range of studies over the last 40 years have shown that inmates who maintain close contact with families while incarcerated have a better chance at successful parole and are less likely to return to prison.
"You have to stay involved and like you're part of a surviving family system," said Gray. "If you don't feel you can belong when you get out, you're likely to go and find the people you know how to connect with, and they are usually other criminals."
Phone calls are a huge part of staying connected, especially for young kids who don't have the capacity to read or write, Gray said.
"When they can just hear mommy's voice it helps as opposed to not knowing what this piece of paper is and where it came from," she said. "Letters are an obscure kind of concept for kids."
A 2011 Pew report found that across the nation on average, more than four in ten parolees recidivate within three years of their release and end up back behind bars.The FCC's further proposed reforms, which include capping in-state calls, stamping out commissions to correctional facilities, and eliminating extra fees associated with things like opening, closing, and depositing money into accounts, could slow this continuum, if enacted.
Friedmann said FCC now has the opportunity to "expand on the nine trend setter states," that don't accept commissions. The other prisons will find solutions to replace the "false revenue" amounted from what is essentially an "unfair tax on families," he said.
He pointed out though, that the changes will only affect state prisons. Local and federal prisons, as well as places like immigration detention facilities, will still pocket tens of millions of dollars in commissions, he said.
Despite the long road ahead, the broader reforms and call caps will not only financially benefit families, but also reduce the "human cost" of separation, Friedmann said.
"You basically warehouse people and keep them isolated in a box for one, 10, 20 years," he said. "When we dump them back into society, we expect them to integrate and become functioning members again. That's really difficult if you cut them off from their families."
"The thing is, if you cant keep in touch, if you can't keep on top of the little things — what's happening in the business, what homework is getting done, whose teeth are getting worked on — then you'll never fit back in again," said Gray.