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Phoning Home: High Cost Calls Hinder Prisoner Rehabilitation

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My wife used to be a public defender in Pennsylvania, representing prisoners in their appeals. Over the years, several prisoners came to trust her judgment and still call our house from time to time seeking advice. As I organize our bills so we can pay them each month, I have unwittingly become heavily involved in funding criminal defense work myself. This is because collect calls from prisons, often lasting only a few minutes, generate absurd costs.

Here’s an example. Three calls originating from a prison in Pennsylvania totaling 25 minutes in January and February of last year cost my wife and I $26.73, or about $1.07 per minute. Now, we don’t like paying these charges, but we can afford them and they are rather limited for us as a family. We do not have a relative in prison and the calls do not come that often or last that long.

But what about prisoners trying to stay in touch with their families as they seek to rehabilitate themselves in prison and prepare for life after prison as responsible members of society? Most prisoners are poor and their families are poor. High cost phone bills force families to make bad choices. They can either not accept calls from family members in prison or they can spend money they don’t have.

What archaic phone service are prisoners using to make these outrageously overpriced collect calls? Well my phone bill lists the service provider for these calls as “Verizon Select Services.” I don’t use Verizon so I was shocked that they could stay in business charging so much for a call. So I checked Verizon’s web site and learned that for $39.99 a month (or about $480 a year), a Pennsylvania resident could have unlimited calling to anywhere in the United States including Puerto Rico.

Prisoners, however, cannot receive phone calls and in many states cannot choose which phone service to use. They must make a collect call using the service contracted for by the prison. If a prisoner tries to talk to family members once a week in Pennsylvania for just 15 minutes to stay in touch with his children or so that a sick parent knows her incarcerated daughter still cares, their families will be paying over $834 a year to stay in touch.

That’s $834 for about 12 hours of talk time a year. Why should twelve hours of conversation a year from prison cost $350 more than unlimited calling for the rest of us?

I know of no social science of any mainstream political persuasion which would dictate that it makes sense to deny prisoners access to their families. Quite the opposite.

Having prisoners, the large majority of whom will return to society, maintain a connection with their families is in most cases the best thing for them. Even the Federal Bureau of Prisons appears to agree. In its 2004 Legal Resource Guide the agency says: “Telephone privileges are a supplemental means of maintaining community and family ties that contributes to an inmate’s personal development.”

Similarly, it makes no sense to drive the primarily poor families of prisoners further into poverty. The stronger these families are, the more likely they are to be a source of strength and support for prisoners during their time in prison and when they get out.

Poverty is a factor that increases the likelihood that someone will end up in prison. Increasing poverty among families already at risk is more than bad anti-crime policy—it is immoral.

Why do so many state departments of correction, county jailers, and even juvenile detention facilities so often charge exorbitant fees for telephone services to their captive audiences? Research done in 2004 by the Associated Press showed that California counties earned on average about half of the more than $303 million from collect calls made by prisoners over a five-year period. So at the end of the day, prisoner’s families, most of which are poor, are paying a hidden tax to maintain the prisons.

While over-charging the families of prisoners continues across America, advocates have begun to win some key victories. For example, in February 2004 the Center for Constitutional Rights sued the state of New York and MCI on behalf of the families of prisoners to stop telephone over-charging by MCI/Verizon, alleging that the phone companies and the state government were charging 630 percent more for collect calls from prison than for a regular collect call.

The lawsuit is now winding its ways through the courts. Just last month New York’s highest court ruled that the case could proceed after state lawyers contested whether the suit was filed in a timely fashion.

But the state’s new governor, Eliot Spitzer, decided that there was no reason for New York to wait any longer to bring some measure of justice to these families. Spitzer acted to end this egregious practice—only days after he became Governor. As of April 1, New York no longer requires MCI/Verizon to pay 57.5 per cent of its profits to the state.

The Center for Constitutional Rights estimates that this should result in an immediate cost savings to families of at least 50 per cent. But across America there is still a long way to go.

States ought to stop the pathetic practice of gouging poor families who just want to keep in touch with loved ones in prison. It’s mean-spirited and bad policy. It should end.

Henry Fernandez is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress focusing on state and municipal policy.

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