Here’s What It Really Cost to Make All Those Phone Calls to Adnan Syed for ‘Serial’

Prisons make upward of $450 million on inmate phone calls annually.

(Photo: Flickr)

Dec 18, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Over the course of Adnan Syed’s 15 years in prison, he’s only had one infraction: owning a cell phone.

The subject of the poplar Serial podcast, which released its finale episode on Thursday, Syed is currently serving life in prison in a Maryland correctional facility for allegedly killing his ex-girlfriend in 1999.

While outlawed in prison, cell phones are often an item worth smuggling in if inmates want to stay in touch with their families. The prisons, of course, have phones but with exorbitant fees for family and friends on the receiving end.

Costs vary by state. Alabama sits at the high end with $6.75 for a 15-minute call (the maximum amount of time for an individual call), and New Mexico costs less than a tenth of that for the same amount of time: 66 cents. Maryland falls somewhere in the middle.

Depending on whether podcast host Sarah Koenig called Syed locally or from a different state and whether she used a prepaid account or made collect calls, 15 minutes would cost between $4.50 and $5.45, according to Prison Phone Justice. That means for 40 hours of talk time with Syed, Koenig was probably looking at a price tag between $720 and $872.

But the expenses don’t end there. Additional fees ranging from $5 to $9 stack up when a reporter or family member needs to create a prepaid account or request a paper bill. Even adding money to the account has an ancillary fee, which means it could have easily exceeded $1,000 to hear Syed’s story.

These calls are so expensive in large part because it’s how prisons make a big chunk of their money. A single phone company, like Global Tel-Link in Serial, is given sole access to provide phone service for inmates. In return for the contract, they give the state or prison system a hefty commission. Maryland received more than $4.9 million in 2013 from such kickbacks, according to Prison Phone Justice.

What do the prison systems do with these funds? Well that depends. Some counties use them for educational programs or general maintenance. In Maryland, the prisons are not required to submit a report detailing the use of these funds, meaning officials can use it however they please.

The Federal Communications Commission and prisoners’ rights advocates are making strides to lower these rates. Last year, the FCC capped interstate calls at 25 cents per minute. But as of now, no such cap exists for intrastate calls. In September, the FCC announced they are considering a flat rate on local calls as well as curbing the amounts the government can receive as a commission.

While Koenig’s team was likely able to foot the bill with relative ease, many families are not so lucky. An estimated 2.7 million children have an incarcerated parent. Not only are these calls precious to kids missing a parent, they also help reduce recidivism for those imprisoned by keeping them in touch with their community. Phone calls help an inmate maintain community ties that are vital after release, helping ease them back into society.

Consider that the next time you see hundreds of rollover minutes on your phone bill.