Monday, May 13, 2013

The high cost of prison phone calls

One thing that people who don't regularly communicate with people in prison may not think about is how prisoners make phone calls to their loved ones. And who pays for them.

Sadly, over the last decade or so, inmate phone calls home have become quite the racket. Departments of Correction sign contracts with private companies. In most states, the DOC gets a portion of whatever revenue is made on each phone call. Inmates, then, are paying ridiculous sums per minute, as much as we used to pay for international phone calls to really obscure countries. My college roommate served in the Peace Corps in Africa in the '90s. In the two years she was there, I made special arrangements to call her only a handful of times, treating each of them like a luxury because as a college graduate with a full-time job, one half-hour phone call would equal about 4 Friday night dinners out. So imagine how much harder it is on an inmate who makes $.12 an hour and just wants to talk to his mom or grandma once in a while.

It's just another way in which our correctional policies are hopelessly short-sighted. The DOCs love the current set-up because they get to earn money. And the private contractors obviously love it. But when we turn calls home into a luxury for inmates, we're only further decreasing the likelihood of inmates losing connections to their communities, their families, their friends. We're only further increasing their sense of isolation. Those inmates who are more isolated, less connected to their communities seem like the inmates most likely to reoffend upon release, don't they? The reality is that most prison inmates will be released some day, so it's in our best interests as a society to keep that in mind.

Plus, there's the fact that it's just not very nice to jack up prices on inmate phone calls. I don't think it's making prison a 5-star resort to grant them access to phone calls that don't cost an arm and a leg. I know it's not popular to suggest that we might be a little kind, show a little human decency, even compassion, to prison inmates. But, truly, it wouldn't kill us.

I was glad to see, then, that the FCC might actually be looking into this. I don't know if anything will actually change on that global a level, but it would be nice.

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