Every day, sometimes at 8 a.m., sometimes just after lunch, Marilyn Ankrom waits for the phone call from prison.
She can't call in -- they've wired things to make that impossible. She gets 15 minutes. Then the line goes dead.
Even so, the Carnegie woman treasures that quarter-hour every day, when her friend Nino Petrocelli, imprisoned in a state penitentiary two hours north, waits for his turn at one of four phones to dial in and hear her voice.
"We talk about his family, and the people who ask about him," said Ms. Ankrom, who knows Mr. Petrocelli through her church and a thrift store they ran together. "He likes to keep a handle on everything that's going on. It does keep him sane."
Phone calls from the outside do more than keep prisoners entertained, researchers say. They've actually been shown to keep them from re-offending, maintaining family connections that prove vital when inmates leave prison.
So Ms. Ankrom doesn't understand why her friend pays $5 for every 15-minute call, five times what it costs her to call anywhere in the country on a pre-paid cell phone. Neither does the Federal Communications Commission, which is looking into the issue.
"The people who are in prison are already struggling," she said. "I can understand them being charged. But why charge so much?"
While the per-minute price of the average phone plan drops every year -- approaching zero, in the case of unlimited plans -- prisoners are paying exorbitant rates to call their loved ones. To dial an out-of-state number, an inmate in a Pennsylvania state prison pays $9.35 for a 15-minute call. At the Allegheny County Jail, they pay $10.65.
The small group of telecom companies that sells phone service to prisons says costs are driven up by the expensive security capabilities demanded by their clients. But advocates -- and perhaps the FCC, which held a workshop earlier this month to discuss the issue -- instead blame state and local governments, which usually take a sizable cut of prison phone profits.
"When 50 cents on every dollar goes back to the county, that doubles the cost of the call," said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative in Northampton, Mass. "The people who end up paying the bill are the people who are locked up."
In 2012, Pennsylvania took in $6.9 million as its cut of prisoner phone call charges. Slightly less than half went to buy amenities for inmates; the rest went to the state's general fund.
Defending the contract with Alabama-based Global Tel• Link, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Susan McNaughton said the state's deal allows jailers to monitor and record prisoner conversations, stopping fraudulent activities at no cost to the prison.
"The DOC is not a telephone company and does not have the capabilities to charge families and operate a system like a private entity," she wrote in an email.
Allegheny County also is pleased with its arrangement with Dallas-based Securus, which netted $1.1 million last year for the jail's prisoner welfare expense trust fund. On Wednesday, Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner revealed that two laptops and a digital camera bought with the fund have since gone missing.
Inmates using one of the jail's 336 phones pay a $1.80 connection fee for local calls and $2.70 for out of state. They're then charged between 4 and 53 cents a minute, depending on what area code they're calling.
"The county has no plans to make changes to its rates and fees at this time," spokeswoman Amie Downs wrote in an email.
Other states are changing their stance. In 2007, New York's state prison system gave up its 57.5 percent commission, reducing the average price of a 20-minute call from $4.48 to 96 cents. Since then, fewer than 100 illicit cell phones were confiscated in 2012, compared with 10,000 at other prison systems; the use of the prison payphones has tripled.
New York acknowledges it lost $20 million after dropping the commission, resulting in service cuts to inmates. But in a letter to the FCC, Commissioner Anthony Annucci wrote he thought the state won out overall.
The FCC has taken notice, announcing its intent in December to consider new rules regulating the prisoner telephone industry. In her opening remarks, FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn said the cost of cutting phone rates may be less than damage already being done.
"Regardless of why that inmate is in jail, the exorbitant inmate calling regime deeply and chronically affects the most vulnerable among us," she said. "Multiple studies indicate that having meaningful contact beyond the prison walls can make a real difference in maintaining community ties, promoting rehabilitation and reducing recidivism."
Industry and prison groups say it isn't so simple. Violence prevention, child training and vocational programs could go unfunded if phone commissions are cut, they warn. And providing phone service to small county jails is an especially tough business, with local wardens wanting the same expensive security features whether they have five inmates or 5,000, they argue.
"I'll be honest with you, I do not believe that we can provide that level of security, especially in small jails, with some of the drastically reduced rates that I've heard discussed here," said Mitch Lucas, vice president of the American Jail Association, at the FCC workshop.
Neither Global Tel• Link nor Securus, Allegheny County Jail's phone provider, could be reached for comment. The county has a tortured relationship with Securus and its competitors, having faced several lawsuits over how it awarded contracts.
Ms. Ankrom, the caller from Carnegie, won't have to wait much longer. Mr. Petrocelli, imprisoned for reckless driving and probation violations, could be out by December, she said.
But she worries for his friends still behind bars, who might go weeks without hearing from their families for lack of money.
"There are times Nino will put me on the phone with another inmate just so they can hear a female voice," she said. "He says, 'Marilyn, just talk to him. He hasn't talked to a woman for a year.' "
She pauses. "It's a connection. I can't explain it, so I try to envision myself where they are."
Andrew McGill: email@example.com or 412-263-1497.