PhotoIn this era of cell phone plans that treat local and long distance calls the same, it's easy to forget that long distance “collect” calls, in which the receiving party pays the charge, can be costly.

Indeed, the whole idea of a collect call, made from a pay phone (remember those?) now seems quaint. Quaint, maybe, but also costly. They are very expensive if they are made from jail, as Michael, of Lusby, Md., recently discovered.

“My Verizon bill contained a $70.48 item from Zero Plus Dialing (Network Oper Svcs) for a 15 minute collect call,” Michael wrote in a ConsumerAffairs post. “From what I can tell, my son was incarcerated in a county facility about 30 miles away and the charge in question is associated with a call from him. ZPDI was willing to give me a $28.00 credit, which I turned down. Even with the credit, I am being charged about $2.83 per minute. There was no mention of a rate charge when asked if I would accept the collect call.”

Rules for collect calls

There should have been. When a consumer answers the phone and an operator asks them if they will accept a collect call from an individual, they have no way of knowing the rate. It can vary wildly, especially if it is being made by someone held in a correctional facility.

The Federal Communications Commission requires that, when an inmate places a collect call, each Operator Service Provider (OSP) must identify itself to the person receiving the call before connecting the call. Each OSP must also disclose, before connecting the call, how the receiving party may obtain rate quotations. Additionally, the OSP must permit the receiving party to terminate the telephone call at no charge before the call is connected.

These rules apply only to interstate OSP calls -- meaning calls from one state to another. Most states, however, have similar rules for intrastate OSP calls -- calls that occur within a single state.

Collect calls are much rarer than they once were and usually carry a very high rate per minute. But the rate of a collect call from a correctional facility is usually even higher.

Why are the calls so expensive? Very simply, phone companies charge more for a collect call from prison because they can. Prisoners have no alternative for calling friends and family. You might say they are a captive audience.

The jails get a cut

State and county governments, which operate jails, often receive a portion of the proceeds from these calls, in exchange for awarding the contract. While policymakers in some states have questioned these practices, in an era of shrinking state budgets, correctional facilities have generally fought to preserve the arrangement.

Several states -- including Nebraska, Missouri and New York -- have reduced or eliminated commissions and have passed the savings along to families and friends of those incarcerated, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights.

“The high rates for prison phone calls are being paid by the families of incarcerated people, who are already doing what they can to help their loved ones become law-abiding citizens,” the group says on its website. “The high cost of prison phone calls hinders these efforts.”

To provide options for inmates, some private companies have set up telephone relay units in the locality of a correctional facility. An inmate may call the unit as a local call, which is then forwarded to the inmate's family using a low-cost long-distance service.

Many correctional systems have prohibited inmates from using these services, citing the need to tightly control and monitor inmate communications. That's why inmates can't take cell phones behind bars.

Meanwhile, if you receive a collect call – especially from someone in jail – understand that the per-minute rate will be very high and conversation lengths should reflect that reality.


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