CenturyLink is the third largest telecommunications company in the U.S. (after AT&T and Verizon). Based out of Monroe, Louisiana, it is a multinational communications company serving North America, Europe, and Asia. The main services of the company include communications, television, and data services including wireline telephone services and internet services to residential, business, governmental and wholesale customers. In 2014, CenturyLink reported $18.031 billion in revenue.
CenturyLink’s subsidiary, CenturyLink Public Communications Inc., is one of the largest phone service providers to prisons in the U.S., serving over 250,000 prisoners nationwide. As of September 2015, CenturyLink provides prison based phone call services to 37 incarceration facilities in 13 states (Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin).
Phone call services from CenturyLink connect inmates’ calls to the community, to families, friends, attorneys, etc. Prisons provide payphones that can call out to a list of approved phone numbers. The process varies between each prison and contract, but generally fall into one of two categories. 1) PREPAID: Families or friends willing to receive phone calls must be approved by the prison through an application process, then make an account with another group CenturyLink contracts with (such as Securus Technologies) to pre-pay for the cost of calls. Or, 2) COLLECT CALLS: Inmates make collect calls to approved phone numbers at the collect call rate per minute. Both of these categories include surcharges and connection fees that add to the cost of the phone calls.
This service extracts a very high cost on the incarcerated individuals or their families. Call costs, commissions to facilities (aka “kickbacks”), and types of phone services contracted with CenturyLink vary by state. These commissions ("kickbacks") are written into contracts as payments to the facilities - a percentage of the call's cost, added onto the base price of the call. For example, in Arizona, the cost for a 15-minute phone call with a prisoner is either $6.00 (collect) or $5.60 (pre-paid). From that charge, CenturyLink will return 93.9% to the Arizona Department of Corrections. The actual cost of the phone call is much less than what a prisoner is charged. Often, contracts are awarded based on which company returns the highest commission to the state rather than which company can provide the best service and lowest rate for prisoner phone calls. So the prisoner and their family pay both CenturyLink and the Department of Corrections.
The cost for a 15 minute phone call can range from $1.80 to $6.00, depending on the facility contract. CenturyLink adds additional fees on top of this cost per call. Families are charged for setting up accounts, for adding money to an account, a monthly charge for maintaining an account, and for taxes and tariffs.Families in Arizona, where CenturyLink is the sole provider to state prisons, have had to pay up to $180 per month to maintain communication with a loved one.
CenturyLink is one of the companies being sued by the FCC because of the exorbitant cost of prison phone calls. In September 2013, the FCC introduced an order to cap phone call costs per minute at $0.25 per minute for collect calls $0.21 per minute for debit or pre-paid calls (see FCC 13-113). However, this has only been enforced to interstate, long distance calls.
n October of 2015, the FCC passed new rules regarding the cost of in-state calls, which they said can run as high as $14 a minute. The FCC's decision eliminates or limits fees commonly tacked on by providers. It also caps the maximum cost of a 15-minute in-state or local call at $1.65 and lowers the per-minute rate. The new rules affect inmates in federal and state prisons, including immigrant detention centers. They also apply to local jails, though rates are higher in smaller facilities.
Despite the public outcry and numerous reports about the ill effects of excessive prison phone call costs, cost-cap enforcements have not been enacted even in state and local facilities because of continuing legal proceedings. In its annual report, Centurylink identifies the FCC regulations as a regulatory risk which could cause a termination in contacts and a loss of revenue with the company. CenturyLink has lobbied against FCC cap orders and publicly attacked them as “wholly unrealistic.”Prison phone service providers, including CenturyLink, have repeatedly appealed court decisions siding with FCC caps.
CenturyLink contracts for video visitation services used at correctional facilities. Video visitation can occur over webcams at a family home, or in jail facilities where the visitor is in a separate room from the inmate. CenturyLink has such contracts with jails in Florida to allow webcam based video visitation. As part of the contract, CenturyLink covered the cost of equipment and installation, and set a standard of 50 cents per minute for visitation calls. CenturyLink is to provide 15% of the revenues to the jail's inmate welfare fund for inmate re-entry programs and staffing.
CenturyLink does not make its phone or video call rate tariffs available publicly on its website as required by FCC Rule 47 C.F.R. 42.10 (b). CenturyLink also often fails to release information on subcontracting prison phone services with other companies (such as ICSolutions), making it difficult for the FCC to follow their true cost to provide services.