The cost of inmate phone calls is a hidden scandal. Actually, except for the protests from those who think inmates should be locked down 24/7 with a Bible, their own thoughts, and absolutely no privileges, the subject of inmate phone calls is practically never raised. Which is why I am so glad to see Ed Brayton cover this story over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars :
One of the many ways that governments screw over poor families and lock people into lives of crime is by charging huge amounts for phone calls from prisoners to their friends and families. Companies profit from it and so do state corrections budgets because they’re inflating the cost artificially:
According to Prison Legal News, the cost of making a long distance phone call from a prison in Oregon includes a $3.95 connection fee plus 69 cents a minute, costing $14.30 for a 15-minute call. Compare this with making a public call outside of prison, which costs anywhere from 5 to 10 cents per minute for long distance calls on landlines, costing a maximum of $1.50 for a 15-minute call.
For many families with loved ones behind bars, the choice between accepting a collect call and putting food on the table is a real and painful decision. It may come as a surprise to many that the increased cost of these calls has nothing to do with the actual service that is being delivered. What is actually happening is that prisons have designed a business system that allows them to offset their operation costs onto the shoulders of innocent families and to reap a profit.
The state prison kickback rate varies, with Texas accepting a 40% commission rate for phone calls and charging up to $6.45 for a 15-minute call. That same phone call provided by the same company in Maryland yields a 60% commission rate and costs a family member $17.30.
From personal experience, let me tell you that it isn’t only collect calls and/or long distance calls that are charged these rates. When I was in county jail, we could not make collect phone calls. All calls had to be paid for out of our inmate accounts. In state prisons, almost every inmate is earning an hourly wage, either from working, going to school, or attending programs. (When I say hourly wage, let me be clear; I’m talking from 13 cents an hour to no more than 45 cents an hour, depending on whatever the prison staff felt you deserved for your work. If you owed fines, half of your “wages” would be withheld to make payments. No one is getting rich off the great jobs in the prison.) But in county jail, there are only so many jobs to go around. The vast majority of the inmates aren’t working, so the only way they can get money in their accounts is to have it sent in by friends and family. Once you get money sent in, and the prison gets around to crediting to your account (which can take up to a week after it arrives at the jail. What are you going to do about it?), you can finally make a phone call.
And get charged a 3.95 connection fee plus 69 cents a minute for a local phone call.
So who cares, right? I mean, they’re fucking criminals, amirite? I was a fucking criminal. Screw ’em all.
Except prison is supposed to be about rehabilitation. We know the statistics of how many inmates are non-violent drug offenders. And as Ed says better than I could:
Why does this matter? Because study after study has found that regular interaction with one’s family is a key factor in helping inmates reintegrate with society and avoid future legal troubles. A huge number of people in prison are fathers and mothers with children, often there on nothing more than drug possession charges. And by isolating them, it becomes far more likely that they will be forced into a life of crime, often violent crime, upon release. This is counterproductive and needs to stop.