For Mark Curry, a return trip to prison — where he spent 14 of the past 20 years — would be a lot easier than battling his drug...

Share story

For Mark Curry, a return trip to prison — where he spent 14 of the past 20 years — would be a lot easier than battling his drug addictions, mental illnesses and homelessness.

But because of a close relationship with his daughters that developed over numerous phone calls from prison, the Seattle man promised he would stay out of trouble after leaving the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla in May 2005.

Though the conversations brought the family closer, the high price of making collect calls from prison cost Curry his relationship with other relatives.

For years, Washington state had some of the highest prison phone costs in the country, according to the Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), a national inmate-rights organization. But Friday, the price of accepting one of the nearly 200,000 in-state collects call placed monthly by Washington prison inmates decreased significantly.

A 20-minute collect call from an inmate at the Airway Heights Corrections Center near Spokane to Pierce County had cost nearly $22. It will now be about $3.50, according to the state Department of Corrections (DOC).

“It’s hard enough when families are divided, without having to pay so much for a phone call,” said Curry, 37, who served time for drug possession, kidnapping, burglary, robbery and illegal firearm possession. During his years in prison, Curry lost contact with relatives who couldn’t afford to take his calls.

The new call rates are the result of a three-year contract DOC signed with Chicago-based FSH Communications in April. Previously, collect calls from state prisons were handled by AT&T. Under the new contract, which DOC spokesman Gary Larson describes as a better deal, the calls will cost less and the state will earn more money off of them.

“We basically consider it a good deal for families of offenders, the department and crime victims,” Larson said. “Twenty-five percent of the money the state receives goes to a crime-victims’ fund.”

Kay Perry, coordinator for CURE’s campaign to reduce inmate telephone charges, said that Washington prisons are now offering collect-call rates comparable to those in most other states.

“Washington has made some tremendous strides. They used to have the highest rates,” Perry said.

In Washington, the state places a surcharge on inmate phone calls and about a quarter of all money the state earns from these calls goes toward a fund for crime victims and witnesses. The rest of the money goes into the state Offender Betterment Fund, which pays for community-area televisions, ice machines, books, sewing machines, children’s toys for prison visiting rooms, holiday treats and other miscellaneous prison items, Larson said.

Under the contract with AT&T, 40 percent of the cost of calls — or about $3.8 million a year — went to the state. The FSH contract guarantees the state about $5.1 million each year, Larson said.

A Tacoma woman said telephone calls from her daughter’s boyfriend while he was incarcerated the past seven years cost her and her husband $8,000.

“You can tell these offenders not to call because you’ve got these large phone bills. But they keep calling because they’re so lonely it gets them through,” said the woman, who didn’t want to be identified to protect her family.

The new phone system will have all the same security features as the old one.

Calls are a maximum of 20 minutes, can be monitored and recorded and the people answering an inmate call will be greeted with an announcement that the call is coming from prison. All calls from prison are collect and can be made only to landline phones.

Under the new system, people who receive the calls can pay an even lower rate if they use a prepaid telephone account, Larson said. Out-of-state and international calls from Washington inmates won’t yet be able to receive the reduced call rates, Larson said.

“We know that people who have a strong social-support system are going to do better when they get out of prison,” Perry said. “People don’t deserve to pay these rates because they love somebody.”

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or