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Prison Phone Costs: A Moral Issue
Imagine if the family of someone in prison were required to pay for the cost of prison. And imagine that this tax was on the communication between loved ones and those imprisoned.
Every word a grandmother utters to her grandson on the telephone would be another payment to his jailers. Unfortunately, in the United States, this unconscionable scenario is no flight of fancy—the federal government has ignored entreaties to prohibit this practice for almost 10 years.
How does this happen? Routinely in this country, prisons and jails charge exorbitant rates to companies who offer secure telephone service for prisoners, and those rates are passed on to the families and loved one who pay for the calls. These telephone companies are often required to bid against one another to offer telephone service—whoever offers the biggest payment to the prison gets the right to offer calls. Prisoners don’t have choice like the rest of us, they get to use only the telephone company selected by the prison.
How much can prisoners’ and their families pay for calls? According to a recent study, for long distance calls, many families can pay a connection charge of $3.00 or more plus per-minute rates up to $.89 – resulting in $10 to $17 for a 15-minute collect call. These costs are outrageous when many Americans access services that are either unlimited long-distance plans, or, charge 3 cents per minute with no connection fees. For a prisoner’s family, a 15 minute call per week could cost $120 per month.
Are these rates justified by security needs? No. A number of states have reformed their systems, bringing down rates to as low as 5 cents per minute.
Don’t we want to encourage contact with prisoners while they are incarcerated? Yes, sadly the federal policy is not only inhumane, but it reduces the chances that prisoners will successfully reintegrate into society when they are released. Strong social networks outside prison help former inmates succeed as law-abiding citizens when they get out.
How can I help? Sign up to join OC Inc's campaign against this injustice. In addition, our media advocacy partners Thousand Kites are collecting stories and pledges to end the kickbacks.
You can also check out the Hollywood movie Middle of Nowhere, and our discussion guide. You can host a showing at a local theater and make it a fundraiser.
How can I find out more? These resources offer detailed information about this issue.
Civil Rights Groups and Conservative Leaders Urge FCC to End Predatory Prison Phone Rates (May 2012).
Blog post: Effort to end predatory prison phone rates gains steam. (Sept. 14, 2012)
Blog post: Predatory Prison Phone Rates--Jesse Jackson, Hollywood, Op-Eds and Articles Proclaim the Injustice (Oct. 8, 2012)
"Criminal Charges: Excessive Prison Phone Rates Take a Toll on Innocent Families," report by the Media Justice Fund of the Funding Exchange, April 29, 2009.
Prison Legal News. "Nationwide PLN Survey Examines Prison Phone Contracts, Kickbacks," April 2011.
American Bar Association detailed legal memo supporting its 2005 resolution favoring the lowest possible rates for prisoners.
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