CenturyLink is the third largest telecommunications company in the United States and a leading provider of phone and video services to prisons.
CenturyLink is the third largest telecommunications company in the United States, following AT&T and Verizon, based in Monroe, Louisiana. It is a multinational communications company serving North America, Europe, and Asia. The main services provided are communications, television, and data services, such as wireline telephone services and internet services to residential, business, governmental, and wholesale customers. In 2017, CenturyLink reported $17.65 billion in revenues and employed 51,000 people.
CenturyLink’s subsidiary, CenturyLink Public Communications, Inc., is one of the largest phone and video visitation service providers to prisons in the United States, serving over 300,000 incarcerated people nationwide. As of July 2018, CenturyLink provides prison based phone and video services in correctional facilities housing over 300,000 inmates in 15 states.
The phone call services connect incarcerated people to friends, family, and attorneys. The prisons provide payphones that call out a list of approved phone numbers. The process varies between each prison and contract, but there are generally two categories that calls fall into: prepaid or collect calls.
For prepaid phone calls, the incarcerated person’s friends or family must be approved by the prison through an application process. After approval, the friend or family member makes an account with a company that is contracted by CenturyLink, such as Securus Technologies, to prepay for the cost of calls. For collect calls, incarcerated people 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.
The Price to Call
The cost for a phone call can vary by state, depending on the contract with CenturyLink and the additional fees included. Family and friends are charged for setting up accounts, for adding money to accounts, and a monthly charge for maintaining an account. In Arizona, where CenturyLink is the sole provider for state prisons, the cost to communicate with incarcerated people can be up to $180 per month. In August 2018, the costs of calls were reduced from 26 cents per minute to six cents per minute in Texas. Under the new contract between Texas and CenturyLink, the cost of a 15-minute phone call will decrease from four dollars to 90 cents.
In addition, CenturyLink gives prison facilities commissions or kickbacks. These commissions are written into contracts as payments to the facilities and are a percentage of the call’s cost, added on the price of the call. For example, in Arizona, where a 15-minute phone call costs approximately $6.00, CenturyLink will return 94 percent of that charge to the Arizona Department of Corrections. Texas state law, as another example, dictates that 60 percent of revenue from the phone system goes to the contractor and the rest goes to the state.
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 states rather than which company can provide the best service and lowest rates. Depending on these fees and each state’s contracts, the cost for a 15-minute phone call can range from $1.80 to $6.00.
Video Visitation Services
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. In Florida, where CenturyLink provides webcam video visitations, CenturyLink covered the cost of equipment and installation and charges $0.50 per minute for video calls. CenturyLink is to provide 15 percent of the revenues to the jail’s inmate welfare fund for inmate reentry programs and staffing.
In its 2017 annual report, CenturyLink identified regulations from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as a regulatory risk which could cause a termination in contracts and a loss of revenue with the company. CenturyLink has a track record of lobbying against FCC cap orders and publicly attacked them as “wholly unrealistic.” CenturyLink is one of the private communications companies that sued the FCC for its 2013 decision to cap the cost of interstate prison and jail phone calls and its 2015 decision to reduce costs on in-state phone calls. The FCC’s decisions would have eliminated or limited fees commonly tacked on by providers, capping the maximum cost of the 15-minute in-state or local calls at $1.65 and lowered the per minute rate. By reducing costs, the new rules would have made calling friends and families more accessible for incarcerated people in federal and state prisons, including immigration detention centers. However, in June 2017, a court ruled that the FCC did not have the authority to cap rates in states, and were not implemented.