Local Policy Guide: Make Jail Phone Calls Free and Eliminate Commissions and Kickbacks on Commissary Items

Local jails, and the private companies they contract with, often charge incarcerated people and their families exorbitant fees and mark-ups for basic goods and services used in the jails. These individuals and their families have no choice but to pay for communications and basic necessities from the vendor that supplies goods and services to the jail — which is either the government itself or a single private vendor selected by the government. Government profits from incarcerated people by charging high costs for these goods and services, generating revenue that goes to the contractor, who in turn shares their profits with the government. The government then uses this revenue to fund its jail operations.

When local jails operate as revenue-raising mechanisms, basic necessities and services become inaccessible. Recognizing the impossible sacrifices these costs force upon incarcerated people and their families, municipalities have started to provide free jail phone calls to incarcerated individuals and have eliminated surcharges, kickbacks, and commissions on commissary items.

Localities seeking to eliminate these perverse incentives and ensure that incarcerated individuals have access to communication and basic essentials may pursue one of the reform pathways outlined below:

  • Renegotiate or rebid contracts with service providers: revise contracts to provide free phone calls to all incarcerated individuals and to eliminate kickbacks or commissions from commissary items.
  • Local legislation: enact ordinances that end commissions and markups on commissary services, reduce rates and fees associated with telecommunications and; ensure that contracts are given to providers who offer the lowest cost to incarcerated people.
  • Budget process: use the budget process to account for potential lost revenue while increasing free communication and eliminating commissary markup

Each guide includes crucial data points that your team should collect and track, questions to guide stakeholder and community engagement, and guidelines for developing an implementing your campaign strategy.

Ready to get started? Download your guide here.

Are you a local leader looking to drive fines and fees reform in your jurisdiction? Learn more about Cities & Counties for Fine and Fee Reform by contacting