The case for free phone calls in prison

By Monique Hurley and Sarah Schwartz | 18 Apr 24

$7 phone calls should not keep families apart.

But for people in Victoria’s prisons, grotesque levels of privatisation mean that it can cost more than a day’s work just to make a short phone call to loved ones.

At a time when phone call costs are approaching zero, and calls from payphones around the country are free, one 12-minute call to a mobile phone from Victorian prisons cost around $7. It means mothers and fathers cannot afford to call their children, and siblings and friends cannot maintain crucial social connections.

While $7 per phone call is exorbitant for anyone, people in prison can barely earn enough money to afford these calls. People in Victorian prisons are expected to ‘work’ or engage in educational or training programs for 30 hours per week. Depending on the nature of the ‘work’, they are paid anywhere from $3.30 to $8.95 per day. For most, a day’s ‘work’ in prison does not even cover the cost of a single phone call.

The steep cost of phone calls is exacerbated by the fact that people entering prison are more likely to have experienced poverty, unemployment or housing instability before being incarcerated and too often do not have the bank balance to meet the cost of calls.

People in prison also have a host of other restrictions imposed on them by prison authorities, including having their call times often capped at 12 minutes.

Disconnection from family can have profound, damaging and long-lasting impacts on people’s lives. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – who are over-incarcerated due to a toxic combination of structural racism, discriminatory policing and the ongoing impacts of colonisation – connection to community is particularly important.

This was recognised during hearings of the Yoorrook Justice Commission – the country’s first formal truth-telling process into historical and ongoing injustices experienced by First Peoples in Victoria. During its hearings, the Corrections Minister acknowledged that phone call charges were ‘excessive’ and promised to look into what could be done.

Earlier this month, as part of its response to the Yoorrook Justice Commission, the Allan Government supported ‘in principle’ taking ‘all necessary steps’ to ensure that people in prison can make telephone calls for free, or at no greater cost than the general community.

International human rights standards demand that prison authorities encourage people in prison to maintain relationships with people outside the prison, and Victoria’s own human rights laws recognise the right to maintain family connections, and the particular significance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people remaining connected to community and culture.

Report after report has recommended free phone calls for people in prison. The evidence is clear that people in prison who remain connected with their loved ones through regular phone contact are less likely to re-enter prison in the future.

Why are prison phone calls so staggeringly high? Victoria’s prison telephone system is provided by the private corporation, Comsec TR. Comsec TR is currently contracted to provide the telephone system to Victorian prisons on a $26.3 million contract running until 2025. Since 2013, ComSec TR has been awarded over $60 million of Victorian government contracts for the provision of telephone systems for the state’s prisons.

Despite Comsec TR providing phone systems in Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania, it charges the highest amount for calls in Victoria. States which do not use ComSec TR, such as Western Australia, charge people in prison a fraction of the price that Victoria does.

It is outrageous that private companies are allowed to make a profit out of people trying to meet one of our most fundamental needs: human connection.

Victoria already has the highest proportion of people in private prisons out of any other state in the country, and even higher than the proportion of people in private prisons in the United States.

While a particularly acute issue in Victoria, the unfair cost of prison phone calls is a nationwide issue, with people charged unreasonable amounts across the country. In some places, commercial-in-confidence contracts shroud the cost of prison phone calls in secrecy.

Change is possible. A number of states in America have moved to make telephone calls free. Recently, Massachusetts became the fifth state to do this, following Connecticut in 2021, California in 2022 and Colorado and Minnesota earlier this year.

Just as people in prison should not face barriers to communicating with family and support networks, they should not be pipelined into prisons where they are dislocated from their communities, paid a pittance for their labour, and put at risk of being subjected to brutal and barbaric practices like solitary confinement.

The Allan Government must stop propping up a system of cruelty and prioritising profits and punishment over people. Making prison phone calls free is a straightforward change that will make a big difference. It is the bare minimum the Victorian government can do this May budget to help people in prison stay connected with loved ones.