Illustration by Mark Markovich

LIKE YOU, State Senator Sara Gelser fell—hard—into the Serial rabbit hole last year.

The true-crime intrigue of the world's most popular podcast brought millions of listeners to the medium. Now it might bring reform to Oregon's lucrative prison phone system.

Gelser, a Democrat from Corvallis, is pushing a bill this session that would sever the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC) from a reliable cash cow: inmates' desire to keep in touch with family and friends. The department reaps a minimum $3 million a year via an agreement that charges prisoners for every minute they talk on the phone, assigns arbitrary fees to replenish accounts that can pay for those calls, and sells electronics equipment that lets prisoners listen to music and message friends and family.

It's not the worst such arrangement the nation's known. The last two years have seen a crackdown on the predatory charges prisons around the country foist on inmates. Those abuses include more lucrative schemes than Oregon's price structure.

But Oregon still charges more than it needs to, and there's widespread agreement—from such entities as the American Bar Association, Congress, and the State of Oregon—that such barriers to contact with family can harm an inmate's ability to transition back into society.

Gelser says the DOC's ability to profit off of inmates is a problem. "It just seems like an awfully vulnerable group to put the costs on," she says. "If you're a low-income person, it can get very difficult to maintain contact with your family."

The senator's bill—which has nominal backing of senate leadership—would lower rates by banning Oregon prisons from banking off their phone service. And it could stretch further than that: Gelser says she plans to broaden the legislation to reform phone access in county jails as well, something not likely to sit well with the state's sheriffs.

So where does Serial fit into all of this?

Each episode of the podcast began with a recording—the beginning of a collect call from the prisoner at the narrative's heart. "This is a Global Tel-Link prepaid call from Adnan Syed, an inmate at a Maryland correctional facility."

The recording got Gelser curious about that "prepaid" element, given the dozens of hours the show's producer spent talking with Syed. With some internet searching, she learned those calls had cost the podcast's producers thousands.

That's not much of an impediment for the radio outfit that bankrolled Serial. It's a much bigger issue for destitute family members hoping to keep in touch with a locked-up loved one.

In Oregon, like Maryland, it's not technically the DOC charging for phone calls. Prisons and jails throughout the country make deals with telecommunications companies, which then set up and run the phone systems.

But there's a perverse incentive attached to these agreements: Prisons get a cut of the proceeds from charges phone companies cook up.

"The current structure of the prison phone market guarantees exorbitant phone bills," says a 2013 report by the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative, which has called for nationwide reforms.

Oregon works with a company called Telmate to offer inmates in its 14 institutions a wide range of services, from regular phone calls to a messaging service that (for a fee) can be used with special MP3 players.

The contract is almost impossibly sweet for the DOC. Not only does the entire system—including laptops, phones, kiosks, printers, and other valuable equipment—not cost the state a dime, the department is guaranteed a minimum of $3 million a year in money that Telmate hauls in from inmates and their families, plus half of phone revenue.

Even so, the contract the DOC inked with Telmate was more conscientious than some. Signed in April 2012, the document set out charges for various types of calls: 15 cents a minute when calling in-state and paying from an inmate debit account, and 65 cents a minute when calling collect out of state.

The DOC contract also prohibited Telmate from slapping on fees when family members put money into an inmate's debit account, a practice that had become common elsewhere.

A month after the initial contract, the DOC got more reasonable still, modifying its rates to a flat 16 cents a minute for all domestic calls, and 50 cents a minute for international calls. The charges were well under the 89 cents a minute for out-of-state calls some prison systems were charging at the time.

"It's both offensive and not the worst I've seen," says Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative and a vocal critic of the prison phone industry, when asked about Oregon's pricing structure.

Then the DOC switched things up. Just two months after signing the first contract, the department altered the provision that forbade Telmate from charging fees for replenishing inmates' accounts.

Suddenly, family members could be charged $4.50 for depositing money via the internet, $5.50 for doing it via the phone, and $2.50 for getting inmates money using a prison kiosk.

Betty Bernt, a DOC spokesperson, notes those fees only apply when depositing money into an inmate's "central trust" account, which can be used to pay for everything from commissary items, to $110 prison-approved MP3 players, to the ability to send messages to family on those devices. There are no fees, she says, if a family member wants to put money into an account designated for telephone use only.

"The amendment to the contract was intended to clean up the initial loose language," Bernt says. "It was not intended as a 'new fee' or a change in the original intent of the contract."

The state doesn't get a kickback for money Telmate collects for such fees, but it does get a piece of calls and other services inmates pay for from their debit accounts. Regardless, critics say such fees are an impediment that can affect families' ability to contact inmates, something everyone sees as important.

When prisoners "are able to maintain contact with their family and friends," Bernt says, "we have less behavioral management issues."

It's clear Oregon could charge inmates less. In an online FAQ about inmate calls, the DOC claims prison phone rates are driven by the costs of the system.

"Equipment that supports security features for inmate phones can cost millions of dollars," the agency says. "Additionally, the phone company considers the cost of repairs, non-collected bills, and fraud when establishing calling rates for inmate calls."

But the millions that Oregon rakes in from its phone plan show these rates are well above what it takes to run the system.

In 2007, the State of New York enacted a policy to refuse any payments above a phone system's "reasonable operating costs." New York inmates now pay less than 5 cents a minute to make domestic calls. They'd been paying 16 cents—the same as Oregon's prisoners.

State law requires money the DOC makes from Telmate be spent on "uses benefiting the general inmate population," and every year the state pours millions collected from the phone service into something called the "inmate welfare fund." The fund pays for things like alcohol and drug treatment, inmate classes, and new equipment for prison common areas, and is dependent on the phone money for nearly three-quarters of its budget.

While Gelser acknowledges these are worthy expenditures, she thinks the DOC can find better ways to fund them. So her bill, Senate Bill 559, would prohibit contracts like the one Oregon has now, eliminating its ability to receive "a fee or other form of payment for telephone services."

But that's not enough, Gelser says. She also wants to include Oregon's county jails, since they're banking on agreements much like the DOC's.

In 2009, for example, the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office contracted for phone service with a company called Securus Technologies. In exchange for a monopoly on inmates' calls, the company agreed to give the sheriff's office 52.3 percent of revenue for those calls, and a $100,000 "signing bonus."

Multnomah County prisoners now pay up to 20 cents a minute to talk on the phone, plus a surcharge of more than $2. (More recently, the sheriff's office was forced to back off a separate contract with Securus that would have ended face-to-face visits in the county's jails in favor of video visits.) The agreement has netted the sheriff's office more than $2.5 million since the contract took effect—money that's put into a county "inmate welfare fund" much like the DOC's.

Attempts to rein in phone fees have met sharp opposition from sheriff departments around the country. In 2013, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) capped the rate that prisons and jails can charge for state-to-state prepaid calls at 21 cents.

The commission is currently looking at rules that would cap in-state charges, and has been beset by hundreds of letters from law enforcement officials who oppose those limits. In a letter sent to the FCC on February 18, an attorney for the National Sheriffs' Association claimed that hampering jails' ability to collect phone money "will result in some facilities reducing or eliminating" those services.

It's unclear, at this relatively early point in the legislative session, whether Gelser's bill has legs. It's sitting in the Oregon Senate's Business and Transportation Committee, and isn't scheduled for a hearing. A call to the committee's chair, Senator Lee Beyer, hadn't been returned by press time.

But the bill also has a powerful co-sponsor in Senate Majority Leader Diane Rosenbaum. A spokeswoman says Rosenbaum supports the bill, but is counting on Gelser to push it.

Like the fate of Serial subject Adnan Syed—recently granted an appeal—the future of inmate phone calls in Oregon is up in the air.