The Privatization of Inmate Privileges

By Connor H. – Research Intern

For the past few decades, the idea of the United States government using private corporations for the use of incarcerating criminals is one that has been under constant scrutiny. The largest argument against the use of private prisons is an ethical argument over whether or not it is right to incarcerate people while the corporation holding them is turning a profit. Along with this, the majority of private prisons only make money when their cells are full, so private prisons keep inmates incarcerated in their facilities for as long as possible. This issue is the one that mainly receives coverage in the media when the topic of private prisons is brought up. However, there have been other aspects of the prison system that have begun being privatized that do not receive the same amount of attention. These two main aspects are the privileges of phone calls and inmate commissary. With more jails and prisons beginning to adopt this private aspect to inmate privileges, the ability for inmates to receive access to them is becoming almost impossible.

When a person is convicted of a crime and sent away for an extended period of incarceration, one of the only ways they can communicate to the outside world is through telephone calls. These calls have always cost the inmate, or the person calling the inmate, a toll, but since this privilege has started to be privatized, the cost for the calls has skyrocketed. According to a statistic from the Prison Policy Initiative, the majority of the states have an average cost of six dollars per fifteen minute phone call, and ten states have a rate of twelve dollars per fifteen minute phone call (Prison Policy Initiative). This amount of money for something as simple as a phone call borders on being completely preposterous. While it is true that phone calls are a privilege, with the exception of attorney calls, the amount some states charge is simply exploiting inmates who want to reach out to their loved ones. These prices also lead to loved ones not answering the calls the inmates make due to them not being able to afford it. Which leads to the inmate not being able to have consistent contact and can have loved ones fade out of their lives.

Another privilege that has become victim to privatization in the prison system is the commissary the inmates have access to. Traditionally, the commissary in a prison was funded and operated by the state and would turn a small profit on the items that gave the inmates a small taste of home. But as the funding shifted from the commissary items directly to contracting it out to other companies, the prices have suffered the same fate as the phone call prices. The privatization of this privilege also affects the quality of the products that the inmates will receive (Requarth). With the system now being run by a for profit company, inmates will pay the same price for an item of far less quality or will now be forced to pay a lot more for the same item. Both the privatization of phone calls and the commissary system in prisons share the argument of whether it is right to make a profit off of another person’s incarceration and more often than not, to make these profits it comes at the cost of the inmates’ well-being.


Works Cited

Prison Policy Initiative. (2020). Regulating the prison phone industry.

Requarth, T. (2019, May 17). How Private Equity Is Turning Public Prisons Into Big Profits. The Nation.