BT has reduced the prohibitively high cost of calls from prison payphones in England and Wales following a successful super-complaint issued to the regulator Ofcom last year.  

The reduction to prisoners in call costs will be on average 12%.  

The complaint was made in June 2008 by National Consumer Council, Scottish Consumer Council (SCC) and Welsh Consumer Council (WCC), now all part of Consumer Focus, with the support of the Prison Reform Trust (PRT).  Following a 90-day investigation, Ofcom told BT to reduce its prices and renegotiate its existing contract.  It also called on the Prison Service to take steps to ensure the new contract for payphones after 2011 is transparent, good value and does not damage prisoner welfare.

The main grounds of the super-complaint concerned the high cost of calls and how these appear unrelated to the cost of provision.  A 30-minute call from a prison to a landline was over seven times more expensive than the equivalent call from a public payphone.  The costs were so prohibitive that half of all calls from prisons lasted under three minutes.

BT has reduced the cost of prison payphone calls to landlines from 11 pence per minute to 10 pence per minute.  There will be greater reductions for the many people calling family and friends from prison payphones to mobiles. The cost of calls to mobiles during mornings and afternoons on weekdays will fall from 63 pence per minute to 37.5 pence per minute, the existing rate for weekday evenings.  

The complaint also questioned the persistently high cost of telephone calls from prisons, at a time when costs for other basic telephone services have fallen by 60%.

The complaint followed serious criticism of the market by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman for England and Wales and by prison Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs).  There have also been repeated parliamentary questions tabled on the subject with all requests to see the contracts refused.  

Philip Cullum, deputy chief executive, Consumer Focus, said: 

Prisoners have paid way over the odds for phone calls for far too long, at a time when other consumers have experienced big reductions in their phone bills. Just because people are in prison doesn’t mean they should be ripped off by high phone charges. 

All the evidence suggests that maintaining communication between prisoners and their families benefits both them and society more generally. We are delighted that our super-complaint has finally led to a substantial reduction in these excessive charges, after years of claims that the contract underpinning the prices couldn’t be changed.


Juliet Lyon, director of Prison Reform Trust, said: 

The high cost of prison phone calls has made family contact much harder, even though family support is a lifeline for some prisoners and those who do keep in touch are less likely to reoffend. 

The Prison Reform Trust is pleased that BT has now started to reduce the prohibitively high cost of prison phone calls both to landlines and to mobiles in particular. We expect costs to fall further, bringing them in line with public payphones, after the forthcoming competitive tendering process for the prison payphone contract. 

Research suggests that prisoners are six times less likely to reoffend if they have a supportive family network to return to when they come out, and that almost half of people in prison lose contact with their families during their sentence.


Notes


The telephone service is provided by BT in England and Wales, and Siemens in Scotland.
BT (www.payphones.bt.com/publicpayphones/paymentprices.htm) 
Letter from Director General of Prisons to the Deputy Prison Ombudsman (12 Sept 2006)
Ofcom (www.ofcom.org.uk/consult/condocs/retail/rpcads/rpcposter.pdf)

The two prison services involved are HM Prison Service (England and Wales) and the Scottish Prison Service.  

Consumer Focus Scotland awaits news on what action Siemens, the payphone provider in Scottish prisons, is to take following Ofcom’s ruling.