BT and Siemens are facing a "super-complaint" over how much they charge prisoners to make phone calls.
BT provides the service in England and Wales while Siemens does the same for people in Scottish prisons.
The National Consumer Council and sister organisations for Scotland and Wales, as well as the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) told Ofcom that a half-hour phone call from prison costs seven times as much as the same call from a normal phone box, despite recent falls in phone costs. Not only is this unfair in itself but the PRT says it also has an impact on reoffending - prisoners with a supportive family network are six times less likely to reoffend.
The NCC wants independent analysis of call charges and publication of the contracts between BT, Siemens and Her Majesty's Prison Service.
Prison phones run a PIN-based system. Prisoners must fill in a form with family, friends and legal contacts which is approved before they can make calls. Prisoners can add credit to their accounts in £1 increments.
Calls to landlines are charged at 10p for the first 55 seconds and 1p for each additional 5.5 seconds, or part thereof. There are no peak or off-peak times. Mobile calls cost from 19p to 63p per minute. International calls cost between 44p and £3 a minute. The system was installed at no cost to the taxpayer and HMPS gets commission on credits sold.
BT said prices are set in agreement with the Prison Service and the system was not comparable with the normal payphone network.
The Home Office sent us the following statement, in which Prisons Minister Maria Eagle MP said:
I am disappointed that the National Consumer Council has brought this complaint. We will take time to digest the details and respond fully to the issues raised.
The public payphone service does not require the same level of investment in systems and security features which are essential to meet the requirements of the Prison Service. Prices are benchmarked against market conditions. To reduce costs under the current contract would require a large subsidy at public expense.
The current contract is due to expire in 2011 and a competitive re-tendering exercise will commence later this year.
The PRT has made similar complaints before without success. ®