How to Contact an Inmate by Telephone

Updated on 7/6/2023

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: When a loved one goes to prison, maintaining a line of communication  with them is one of the most important things you can do for them.

First of all,   keeping in touch, with your incarcerated loved one allows you to keep them up-to-date on the lives of their friends and family members. Some people just send photos, for example.

Although they, of course, aren’t able to experience these events first-hand, your loved one will still appreciate hearing about all the good things that are happening during their time away.

This also gives incarcerated individuals something to look forward to once they’ve completed their sentence.

Not only that, but because your loved one will be looking forward to the next time they can speak with you (or any of their friends or family members).

This will provide incentive for them to stay out of trouble and maintain a positive behavior record (as any misstep may cause them to have their privileges revoked).

Aside from  visiting your incarcerated loved one in person, the telephone may offer the most authentic line of communication, as it allows to you speak with your loved one in real-time (rather than wait for days, weeks, or months for letters to arrive, for example).

However, communicating with an inmate via telephone isn’t as simple as it is “on the outside.” As with most everything else involved with the prison system, there’s a process to the whole ordeal. Which is exactly what we’ll dig into in this article.

How to Contact an Inmate by Telephone

Before we go any further, it’s important to note that inmates cannot, under any circumstances, receive phone calls from loved ones outside of prison. Additionally, their ability to make phone calls, as we mentioned above, is quite restricted, as well.

For this reason, it’s important that you, as the friend or family member of an incarcerated individual, truly understand the process so that you can be nearly 100% sure that you’ll be able to receive a call from your loved one at the time in which they’re allowed to make the call.

Many loved ones ask how can they get free calls from their inmate, and as much as we like for that to be possible unfortunately that is not possible. All calls are charged by the phone provider at your inmates facility.

Step One: Have Your Phone Number Approved

Just as you need to gain approval in order to visit your loved one in jail or prison, you also need to have your number listed for approval in order for your loved one to call you when the time comes. Typically, this simply involves having your loved one place your phone number on the list for approval during the intake process, and perhaps having prison administration reach out to you to confirm your identity and your phone number as being correct.

Note that your loved one is the only one who can make these arrangements – meaning you can’t contact administration and request to be added to your loved one’s approved list of numbers on your own.

However, if for whatever reason your loved one doesn’t provide your number during the intake process (perhaps they didn’t have it memorized, for example), they can still add it at a later date.

(If you haven’t heard from your loved one since their sentence began, you might consider   sending them a letter that includes your phone number.)

Now, there are a few things to know as far as reasons the administration may reject your phone number, or why your loved one’s calls may not go through as planned:

  • Cell phones are not allowed; you must provide a landline number for your loved one to call
  •  Google Voice accounts are also disallowed, as well
  • If you’ve opted to block collect calls from being made to your line, your loved one’s calls may not go through
  • If you have call waiting or three-way calling, calls from prison may not go through (or may be cut off if you receive another call during your conversation) After you get approval from prison administration, you’ll be ready to move on to the next step of the process.

Step Two: Set Up a Phone Account

More than likely, the institution in which your loved one is being held will contract with a prison phone service (such as Global Tel Link, or Telmate). In order for you to receive calls from your incarcerated loved one, you’ll need to set up an account with whichever service their institution partners with.

Typically, this can be done on the company’s website or by calling.

(A quick note: Once you’ve provided your information, it may take a few days or weeks for the company providing phone services to process your application.

Usually, you’ll be given a ballpark idea of how long this process will take after submitting your information; if this time period comes and goes, you might want to reach out to the service provider to request an update.)

When registering an account, you’ll typically be provided with a few payment options: Direct billing allows you to pay for phone calls your loved one makes to you after the calls have been made, in the form of a monthly bill.

This option will allow you to talk to your loved one without fear of being cut off due to lack of money in their phone account – but can also lead to unexpectedly large phone bills come the end of the month if you’re not careful.

You can also go the prepaid route – and you have two options of doing so.

One option is for you to fund your loved one’s phone account, which allows them to make phone calls for as long as they can afford them (in other words, money will be deducted from their account in real-time as they use the telephone).

You can also  fund your loved one’s commissary account, allowing them to deposit money into their phone account as needed.

Note that if you go this route, your phone calls may be cut off once your loved one’s account reaches $0.

(Also worth noting, here, is that your loved one can use the money in their account to make phone calls to other people, as well. In other words, while the direct billing option ensures that you only pay for conversations your loved one has with you, the prepaid option opens the door for your loved one to spend the money you’ve sent them elsewhere.)

Before we discuss the actual process of receiving phone calls from your incarcerated loved one, we want to remind you that Pigeonly not only helps you set up an account with the telephone service your loved one’s institution partners with but also creates a phone number that ensures you get the lowest possible rate possible when receiving calls from your loved one.

(Note: Again, you’ll need to notify your loved one of this number, so they can add it to their list of approved phone numbers.)

For more information about how we can help you, here, check out Pigeonly’s Voice services.

Step Three: Receiving Phone Calls from Your Loved One

Once you’ve got all the logistics squared away, you’ll finally be ready to receive a phone call from your incarcerated loved one.

The first thing you need to know is when, exactly, your loved one will be able to call you.

Typically, the prison will have designated a specific time in which your loved one will have phone privileges, which they (your loved one) can inform you of via letter, or the next time you visit them.

(Note that these times are quite strict, and your loved one will almost certainly never be able to call you outside of this scheduled time frame. On the other hand, they aren’t guaranteed this time – depending on certain circumstances, such as a lockdown, they may miss their opportunity to call you during their scheduled phone time.)

When you receive the call, you should be prepared to see either a blocked or unfamiliar phone number appear if you have Caller ID.

The last thing you want to do is miss your loved one’s call because you ignored a number you didn’t recognize. Now, you may be wondering “what happens when I miss a phone call from jail?”

The good news is that your loved one should be able to call back. Usually, prison or jail give them about 3 calls a day for an average of 15 to 30 minutes each call. If they don’t call back, you can always send a letter   explaining what happened. We talk more about this later on.

Once you pick up your loved one’s call, you’ll be greeted with an automated message stating that the call is coming from a jail or prison, and will be asked to accept the call (typically be pressing 1 or saying “I accept”).

While the directions will be pretty straightforward, make sure you follow them as stated to ensure you get connected to your loved one immediately. After the call connects, you’ll likely have at most fifteen minutes to speak to your loved one.

You may receive a warning when you have one minute left (or if your loved one’s prepaid account is running out of money), but you’ll definitely be cut off immediately as your time limit expires.

With that in mind, you’ll want to have an agenda of sorts prepared beforehand, so you can quickly talk about everything you have in mind without wasting too much time.

It’s also very important to note that all calls made from jail or prison are monitored and recorded.

That said, you’ll want to stay away from conversations involving your loved one’s crime or similar activities, or any sort of discussion that could paint them or anyone else in a bad light.

Finally, you should ensure that you and only you are utilizing the phone when your loved one calls.

In other words, don’t hand the phone off to a friend mid-conversation – even if the other person is on your loved one’s approved list of contacts.

Doing so will not only risk having the conversation cut short, but it also may inadvertently cause your loved one’s phone privileges to be suspended or revoked.

Again – you’re not going to have near as much time to speak with your loved one as you would like, so make sure you get everything you need to say out as quickly as possible.

Above all else, be sure to reinforce the fact that you love them, miss them, and will be in contact again as soon as you can.

As a quick reminder, Pigeonly’s Voice services take care of the “behind-the-scenes” part of registering a working phone number, so that you can focus on what’s really important: speaking to your incarcerated loved one.

For more information about how Pigeonly can help you stay in touch with your loved one throughout their prison sentence,  check out our Services page.