After her fiancé was sentenced to prison two years ago, Megain Moosman wanted to stay as connected as she could, so they began talking by phone every afternoon.

They talk about the kids, about how their days are going and about their relationship, the conversations that keep a couple going.

But the calls aren’t cheap.

At first, Moosman was paying just a few dollars to talk to Casey Cormani while he was housed at the prison in Gunnison. But after Cormani was transferred to the Millard County jail as part of a state program, their first 15-minute phone call cost Moosman more than $17.

The unexpected price hike left her reeling, wondering how she would be able to afford to keep in touch.

“I was just distraught,” Moosman said. “What am I going to do? I don’t know how I’m going to talk to him.”

It turns out, Cormani was sent to the county jail in Utah that charges the most for inmate phone calls. Millard County has since lowered its rates a bit — it now costs $11.46 for a 15-minute call to a Utah number. But that’s still 10 times higher than the price to make a call from inside the Utah State Prison.

In Utah, the cost to keep in touch with a loved one who is incarcerated can fluctuate wildly from county to county. While a family in Weber County pays $1.95 to talk for 15 minutes, someone who calls from jails in San Juan or Garfield counties is shelling out more than $10, even though all three of those jails use the same phone company.

Calls from jails can be no longer than 15 minutes, while the prison caps phone conversations at 30 minutes.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

This inequity has attracted the attention of federal regulators. And critics say it’s an inherently unfair structure that takes advantage of a vulnerable population with no alternative than to pay whatever it costs to stay connected to their loved ones.

Moosman said it’s also unfair to inmates like her fiancé, who have little say in where state officials send them to serve their time.

“The county gets paid to have a state inmate there,” she said. “They are making money off having them there. And then they make money off the phone calls.”

‘People don’t call home’

The area in the Millard County jail where the phones are located is almost always empty, Cormani said in a recent call from the western Utah facility.

Inmates and their families either can’t afford the in-state phone rates or choose not to call. Even those who have jobs with jail work crews have to save about two days’ worth of wages to make a single phone call, he said.

Cormani’s cellmate, he said, hasn’t spoken to his wife in six months.

“People don’t call home,” he said. “It’s just too expensive. I feel like this is separating families rather than keeping inmates closer to their families.”

The only way this Utah County couple can afford to keep in touch? Moosman ditched her Utah phone number for a Los Angeles area code — using a loophole created by the federal government.

In 2014, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) capped how much phone companies can charge for calls from correctional facilities to out-of-state phone numbers. The rate can go no higher than 21 cents per minute. By getting a 310 area code, Moosman now is paying just under $4 for each 15-minute call.

Even with this deep discount, down from $11, Moosman estimates she pays about $200 each month for phone calls and added fees.

The couple said being able to talk daily has been important to maintaining their relationship while Cormani serves a zero-to-five-year prison term after he pleaded guilty in 2017 to attempted manslaughter.

“Even though the phone calls are expensive,” Cormani said, “it’s almost like an investment in our relationship is how I look at it.”

And that’s why the FCC stepped in.

The FCC cited studies that show inmates who maintain contact with family and supportive community members while in prison are less likely to commit new crimes — and more likely to become productive citizens. The high costs of long-distance phone calls discourage that communication, the FCC said, particularly for families who are struggling financially.

But the FCC stopped short of extending those same caps to local phone rates. That means phone companies and county jails are free to negotiate contracts with few limitations.

A nationwide issue

The cost disparities are hardly unique to Utah. The Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based criminal justice think tank, found that people locked up in county- and city-run jails are still paying about $1 per minute for phone calls — despite recent reforms. Nationally, the average cost of a 15-minute call from jail is just under $6. (Nine of Utah’s 25 counties with jails charge more than that.)

Wanda Bertram, a spokeswoman for the Prison Policy Initiative, said inmate phone service companies are exploiting a captive market.

She added that when inmates call someone for the first time, their loved ones are often given less than five seconds to decide whether they’ll pay to take the call. And if they miss a call, the companies charge as much as $7 to listen to a voicemail left by an inmate.

“It’s not just people who are incarcerated, it’s their family and their loved ones,” she said. “The people [who] tend to get fleeced the most are poor people who have never interacted with the jail system before.”

High phone costs in county jails are particularly problematic, the organization says, because many people held in local jails have not yet been convicted of a crime, and the phone costs could make it harder for them to contact family members and others who might help post bail or help in their defense.

But in Utah, many of the inmates who are in the rural jails with the highest phone rates are there because the state prison is paying the county to keep them there.

The cost of jail calls in Utah counties varies greatly
You have been reading this story for
:
A similar phone call from these county jails would cost
Davis — $0.16
Garfield — $3.47
Millard — $0.96
Salt Lake — $0.16
San Juan — $3.46
Tooele — $3.31
Utah — $0.29
Wasatch — $3.40
Weber — $0.13
Utah State Prison — $0.10

When asked if it was concerning that prisoners are paying different rates at county jails, prison officials said they have “no input” regarding phone rates and do not receive any revenue from them.

“We are not aware of any complaints from inmates housed in county facilities concerning those rates,” spokesman Liam Truchard said.

Contracts and kickbacks

County jails receive a kickback on the profits from those inmate phone calls. But counterintuitively, the highest earners aren’t the ones charging inmates the highest rates.

Those counties — Millard, San Juan, Garfield, Wasatch and Tooele — only receive about 40% of the profits.

Larger jails, such as in Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties, have much lower phone rates but receive closer to 70% of the money earned. The Utah State Prison gets 78%, according to its contract.

Bertram said that’s common across the nation: Smaller, more rural jails often don’t have the contracting muscle to negotiate a better deal.

San Juan County sheriff’s Lt. John Young said he’s not happy with the jail’s current rate — it is the second highest in Utah at $10.60 for a 15-minute call — but he said the phone provider, Securus, refused to negotiate anything lower. He’s been looking for alternatives, but he’s had difficulty finding another phone company that wants to contract with the Monticello jail.

“Most jail vendors are not as active seeking out contracts with smaller facilities,” he said.

The jail commander in Garfield County said she wasn’t aware that phone calls cost so much higher there, and she said Securus set the rate when the county signed a contract.

Millard County sheriff’s Lt. Ben McDonald also didn’t know that the jail’s rate was higher than that of other Utah counties, but he said jail officials made an effort to lower it last fall after hearing complaints from inmates. The rates dropped, he said, as part of a negotiation with Securus to add video visitations at the jail.

But he defended the current price of nearly $11 for a 15-minute call.

“It’s not just a phone call,” he said. “In a correctional facility, we have to have all those phone calls recorded and monitored.”

The Salt Lake Tribune tried to reach Securus for comment, but emails were returned undeliverable. When a reporter called the customer service line, a representative said media inquiries must be sent to a postal box in Texas. But that letter went unanswered.

Utah counties and the state prison brought in millions of dollars last year from phone call kickbacks, money that is spent differently from county to county. San Juan County made nearly $5,000 last year, money that went into the county’s general fund.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Other counties earmark that money to go back into the jail in some way, either to inmate education programs or for supplies.

The Utah State Prison received more than $1 million last year, and it spent that money funding inmates’ participation in programs at area technical colleges.

‘These are our family members’

A handful of states have passed laws that put a limit on call rates or banned governments from receiving kickbacks as part of their contracts. New York City made its jail phone calls free last year, and Connecticut lawmakers are considering taking a similar step.

Bertram, with the Prison Policy Initiative, said action by legislators is the most promising avenue for further reform.

“It’s important for state lawmakers to pay attention to jail policy,” she said. “It is like pulling teeth to get sheriffs to understand they should not, for ethical concerns, do this thing that is good for their bottom line.”

Utah lawmakers have not debated legislation that would put limits on the jail phone industry. Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, who leads the criminal justice appropriations subcommittee, said there has been a lot of discussion about how inmates communicate with their loved ones, but it’s mostly centered around jail officials moving away from face-to-face visitation in favor of video chats.

But even in the counties where the phone rates are the lowest, families still pay a significant amount to keep in touch with their loved ones.

Sarah Glenn talks to her husband twice a week, at a cost of about $6 or $7 for 30 minutes. If she wants to do a video visit — the only way she can currently see him — that’s even more money.

The phone company only allows her to put $50 in her account at a time, which usually will last about two weeks. Every time she adds money to the account, she pays an extra $3 processing fee.

And though her husband has been sentenced to prison, he’s been serving his time at county jails. He’s been moved a few times, which has meant Glenn has had to deal with different phone companies. In one of those transitions, she lost the money she had in the old account.

But Glenn said she will continue to spend to talk to her husband. He’s not just an inmate or a number, she said; he’s a person whom she loves and wants to be in contact with.

Another Utah woman, Maggie Velazquez, estimates that she pays as much as $30 to $40 a week to talk to her husband and stepson, who are both behind bars. Her husband is in the Draper prison, where the call rates are some of the lowest in the state, but it still adds up.

She skips those little guilty pleasures, like getting a milkshake, so she’ll have enough money to pay for the calls.

“I’d much rather do that and let my family know they are more important to me than myself," she said. "They need to know there is someone out there willing to wait for them, to love and support them in their decision not to run and do their time. And they need to know that support will continue when they come home.”

For Moosman, it’s important for her to not only be there for her fiancé, but she wants to make sure their children talk to him as well. She wants them to hear his voice.

During a recent call she received from Cormani while at a friend’s home in Highland, Moosman hears another familiar voice on the line, a recording of a woman who chimes in during every phone call: “You have one minute left.”

It’s her signal to wrap up their conversation. She tells Cormani she loves him, and they wish each other a good day.

“I miss you,” he says from the rural jail that’s 120 miles away.

“I miss you, too,” Moosman says. “Bye.”