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PLN research mentioned in AP article on prison phone industry

Associated Press, Jan. 1, 2011.
PLN research mentioned in AP article on prison phone industry - Associated Press 2011

Talking to inmates costly for families, attorneys


Updated 12:43 p.m., Sunday, September 25, 2011

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Kimberly Scardina-Gomez has pawned jewelry and even skipped paying the electric bill so she can afford for her 16-year-old son to talk on the phone with his father, who is serving a robbery sentence at a state prison in Illinois.

What really irks her is that phone companies are giving a chunk of the revenue they make from handling calls for families like hers — 42 percent is typical, according to an analysis finished this year— back to jail and prison operators in exchange for the business.

Prison Legal News, a West Brattleboro, Vt.-based publication that advocates for the rights of inmates, found that among state prison systems, commissions cost prisoners' families, friends and attorneys more than $152 million in 2008, the year studied. A report released this month by the Government Accountability Office found that of the $74 million in revenue generated in 2010 by the Bureau of Prisons' inmate telephone system, about $34 million was profit.

Under pressure, states such as Kansas and Florida have reduced commissions while others such as Nebraska and New York have stopped accepting commissions. In California, which ended commissions earlier this year, phone rates declined by 61 percent, Prison Legal News found. Advocacy groups want more prison and jail operators to follow suit or persuade the Federal Communications Commission to establish caps on inmate phone rates.

"It's not fair," said Scardina-Gomez, a 35-year-old laid off paralegal and second-year law student from Chicago. "You see all kinds of studies talking about how to reduce recidivism, how to stop repeat offenders. Things of that nature all start with family structure. They all start with positive reinforcement, yet they don't try to reinforce that at all."

Because of the commissions, receiving calls from inmates cost as much as $15 to $25 for a 15-minute conversation — often five times as high as ordinary collect call rates.

"Whenever you've got money in the mix, it's hard to get away from it," said Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News. "It's like telling a crack addict to lay off the dope. Even if they know they should, it's hard to get them to do it."

The GAO, which studied phone rates as part of a larger report on contraband cell phones being snuck into federal prisons, said lowering rates could increase communication between inmates and their families, helping the inmates reintegrate when they got out of prison. But it said there would be less money available for things like paying wages for inmate labor and offering education and recreational activities.

Bureau of Prison officials told the GAO that the programs were important because "inmate idleness increases the risk of violence, escapes and other disruptions" but noted that Congress would be unlikely to chip in the money. Even critics of the commissions acknowledge it's tough to generate sympathy for inmates, and Wright said their families are "right up there with single welfare moms and illegal immigrants as far as bashable, disenfranchised constituencies that no one gets too concerned about."

And the expense isn't just borne by the families of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons but often by the attorneys who represent them — a practice that some groups allege discourages attorneys from talking to their clients.

The phone companies defend the rates in briefs filed with the FCC, saying their phone systems require costly security devices to keep inmates from harassing potential witnesses or orchestrating crimes from behind bars.

Plus, states and counties — many of them facing deficits because of the recession — have become dependent on the money they earn from the commissions.

"It offsets other costs and allows certain programs for inmates to continue — some training programs, some rehab programs," said Fred Wilson, director of operations for the National Sheriff's Association. "However, we have taken a stand and said the rates need to be reasonable."

Stephanie Joyce, an attorney for Dallas-based inmate communication provider Securus Technologies Inc., which offers phone service for about 2,300 correctional facilities in 44 states, said the issue of who pays for jails and prisons is one for policymakers to decide and that Securus merely collects the commissions when contracts require it to do so.

"If my client doesn't want to go bankrupt and pay out more than it takes in, then the site commissions must be recovered," Joyce said. "It wasn't Securus' decision to invent site commissions."

Fifty-five-year-old Samella Green has benefited from a 40-percent reduction in phone rates in Kansas. But the Wichita woman and her husband, who live on federal disability payments, still spend about $200 a month to talk to four incarcerated relatives.

"It's an enormous weight for people to carry because so many people have family in there," she said.

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