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The staggeringly high price of a prison phone call

Washington Post, Nov. 30, 2021.

As families gather this holiday season, it’s a heartbreaking time of year for those with incarcerated relatives. Not only are they deprived of seeing their loved ones in-person, but also they’re often forced to choose between having no contact whatsoever with those loved ones or accumulating staggering debt.

That’s because in the United States’ jails and prisons, many incarcerated people are charged steep fees to make phone calls to the outside world. On average, a 15-minute call costs $5.74, with some prisons charging a dollar or more per minute — not counting tacked-on hidden fees that can increase overall costs by up to 40 percent.

All told, the correctional telecom industry rakes in more than $1.4 billion annually from prisoner phone calls. That cost is generally passed on to the families of incarcerated people — who are disproportionately low-income, and disproportionately people of color. More than one-third of families with incarcerated relatives go into debt to cover the cost of staying in touch.

As with many issues affecting the most vulnerable Americans, the covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this problem. In addition to the virus’s direct impact on prisoners’ health, it also halted in-person visits across the prison system, leaving phone calls as the only way many inmates can remain in touch with their families.

And while federal prisons suspended fees on video and telephone calls shortly after the pandemic began, most incarcerated people are held in state and municipal facilities, where, in many cases, costs were never eliminated or even reduced. Now, in some regions, in-person visits are slowly being reinstated — but in others, they were already being eliminated even before the pandemic. For many prisoners, phone calls remain the primary or exclusive method of contact they have to reach their families — at a hefty price.

There are a whole host of reasons phone calls from jails and prisons should be free. Studies show incarcerated people who stay close with family members are less likely to reoffend upon release. And for those who haven’t yet been convicted of a crime, the prohibitive cost of calls from jail can hurt a detainee’s ability to organize their defense — especially when those costs are billed to underfunded public defenders’ offices.

But most simply, it’s outrageous that a billion-dollar industry exists based on skimming profits from some of society’s most vulnerable people trying to meet one of our most fundamental needs: human connection.

Fortunately, campaigns are underway to extend this basic decency to incarcerated people and their families. The national Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, led by the Human Rights Defense Center, has pushed for reform at both the state and federal level. Meanwhile, organizations like Free Press ActionColor of Change and the Prison Policy Initiative have pressured local officials, congressional leaders and the Federal Communications Commission to take action.

And we may be approaching a tipping point. This year, Connecticut became the first state to make all communication between inmates and their families free — including phone calls, video chats and emails. (Yes, many prisons charge for email too.) A similar effort is underway in New York, with Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office pledging to consider the legislation. In 2019, Illinois’s Department of Corrections renegotiated with their communications vendor; their prison call rates are now less than a penny a minute. And Miami-Dade County recently cut call rates from 14 cents per minute to 5 cents per minute — still too high, but a move in the right direction.

At the federal level, the Bureau of Prisons should make permanent the current policy of free phone calls for federal prisoners. And Congress should pass a bipartisan bill introduced by Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) that would enshrine the FCC’s authority to cap and regulate call rates nationwide. Specifically, the legislation requires the FCC to “ensure just and reasonable charges” for phone calls. If the FCC needs help determining that “just and reasonable” rate, might I suggest zero dollars?

Of course, this should be just one component of a broader effort to protect prisoners’ rights. Just as incarcerated people shouldn’t be barred from communicating with their loved ones, they also shouldn’t be forced to perform unpaid labordenied their right to vote or placed in inhumane living conditions such as solitary confinement. Being convicted of a crime may deprive a person of their freedom — but it shouldn’t deprive someone of their humanity.

In 2019, New York became the first major U.S. city to make phone calls from jail free. One of the policy’s advocates, Lawrence Bartley, had just left prison 27 years after being incarcerated at 17. His family spent thousands on calls with him. One of those family members was his high school girlfriend — who became his wife, and the mother of his children.

Bartley attributed his perseverance in prison to the hope that came from looking forward to their conversations: “I spent a lot of time just dreaming about the moment to get on the call with her. Without her, I don’t know if I would have ever made it home.”

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