In the twisted world of prison communications, voicemail is an innovation

Captive market.
Captive market.
Image: AP Photo/Julie Jacobson
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Answering machines have been around since the early 20th century, and many have stopped using them in favor of texting and email.

But there’s one place where voicemail can still be very useful: behind bars. People in prisons and jails often have set hours to use the phone and have to compete with others for time. If the person they’re calling can’t talk or doesn’t pick up, they might miss the opportunity to connect for the day. For the most part, if their families want to call, they can’t simply just leave an inmate a message, or text them, as cellphones are banned. The same applies to contact with attorneys, who might have to call with something important, like confirming a court date.

Enter Corrio. It’s a Washington state-based company co-founded by Alex Peder, a former inmate himself, who has experienced the pain and inconvenience of communicating with his family while serving his sentence. “When you are able to call people on the outside, they are living their lives, they’re working, they’re going to school, they’re in between this and that,” he told Quartz. “Holidays are horrendous.” The aim for Corrio’s messaging platform, which launched June 11, is to make the process easier, given that maintaining contact with the outside world has consistently been proven to be beneficial for the incarcerated person’s wellbeing and rehabilitation.

Corrio is a service that lets inmates call a special number assigned to them and then record a voice message that gets texted as a link to any person the prison or jail has allowed them to contact. It connects the facility’s network to Corrio’s private switch network, and a person on the outside can send a regular text to the inmate, as well as record voicemails. The inmate can check their messages at any time they have access to a phone, listening to the recording or to texts that are automatically converted into voice messages.

It makes that quick check-in easier, and normalizes communication with the person on the inside, Carrie Wilkinson, former head of the Prison Phone Justice advocacy project and advisor to Corrio, said. She has used the service to communicate with an inmate: “It was kind of like anybody texting. It just made them seem more connected to me.” A teenager could now get a text from their incarcerated parent, with a brief message telling them “good luck on the test,” almost like they would if the parent was on the outside.

Peder said that in tests, the messages were largely very short, concise, often as simple as “I love you.”

The company bills itself as a simpler, more affordable way to communicate in prison. But it’s still not cheap. The monthly account fee is $5.95, calls cost $0.105 per minute and every message costs $0.25. This can be an eight-minute voice recording, or, if the person on the outside wants to text instead of call, a 160-character message. This is on top of any phone charges imposed by private prison phone operators that control prison communications. The phone number assigned to an inmate is local, which will usually make calls cheaper, especially after the recent lowering of rates in state prisons. But in many jails, the calls can still be expensive, even costing $1 per minute. And prison phone companies often impose hidden fees, like a “first-minute” charge, elevating the cost even further.

If an inmate used Corrio to send a message every day for a month, and got a response back from a loved one for each one, that would be roughly 60 messages, adding up to $15. Let’s say each call that an inmate makes is 1 minute long (Peder says the average is 36 seconds), that adds $0.105 to each call, which equals about $6 per month. Adding in the $6 monthly service fee, and that adds up to nearly $30 month for very brief daily exchanges.

These expenses could quickly rack up for low-income families, especially if they use Corrio in addition to longer calls or video visits.

That said, existing options are generally more expensive or complicated. To listen to a voicemail in prison in Zavala County, Texas, where phones are operated by the prison communications giant Securus, you might have to pay as much as nearly $8 for one message, after adding up all the fees, according to data obtained by the advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative (PPI). In other facilities, it might be $1 a minute, which still can make Corrio cheaper. Email messaging exists, and it can facilitate longer text exchanges, but can cost as much as $0.50 per message. And they’re often limited to tablets offered by private companies which include a variety of associated costs.

In the world of prison communication, costs are often driven up because of the way contracts with facilities are structured. Prisons and jails get kickbacks from every phone call, and the communications companies make millions in the process. In the case of Corrio, the company operates on existing phone lines and doesn’t need to contract with the facility, or get special permissions. Peder says he’s working on reducing costs, and eventually wants to charge a single fee. He says the costs will come down as the service gains users, and he plans to reinvest capital into the company.

Wanda Bertram, communications strategist at PPI, told Quartz there is a need for affordable prison voicemail services, arguing that competition could drive down costs. But, she said, ideally, the county or state would front the cost, instead of the families. And the problem is that too often these services are still being left unchecked.

“The problem of private involvement in prison and jail life is not that companies are there,” Bertram said, “but that companies are allowed to take advantage of a captive audience with very little oversight.”