Prisoners’ crippling phone bills

They're costing their families a fortune, and political pressure has begun mounting to overhaul the system

Topics: Ohio, Incarceration, The American Prospect, New Mexico, Prisoners, Prisoners' Phone Bills,

Prisoners' crippling phone billsFlickr/ danostamper714
This article originally appeared on The American Prospect.

The American Prospect Paying a $4.25 connection fee and then 75 cents per minute thereafter seems costly, unless, perhaps, we’re talking about a phone call from our future Mars colony back to Earth. It is, though, what an operator at the phone company Global Tel*Link says it costs for a call from Pennsylvania’s Carbon County Correctional Facility to anywhere beyond the local calling area. That’s in line with the rates other companies charge for prisoners around the country to make simple long-distance phone calls. To compare, prepaid cell phones on the outside top out at about 20 cents a minute, and a standard residential landline plan at just half that.

If you find it difficult to rally sympathy for prisoners’ hefty monthly phone bills, consider two things. First, we know that contact with the outside world while in prison is tied to better outcomes after prison. Second, those costs are generally borne by families and friends, either through collect charges or the refilling of debit accounts, what the Center for Constitutional Rights’ Annette Dickerson calls “a transfer of punishment.” More than a decade ago, a Washington, D.C., grandmother named Martha Wright protested the high cost of taking calls from her grandson, who had been relocated from Virginia’s now-shuttered Lorton facility, a short Metrobus ride away, to Ohio, then New Mexico, and finally Arizona. A class-action suit followed. In 2001, the federal district judge on the case deferred to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and that’s where the Wright petition has sat since.

A report released last week from Massachusetts’s Prison Policy Initiative called “The Price to Call Home“ dissects how a 20-minute call from Carbon County Correctional ends up costing 20 bucks. States sign exclusive prison contracts with phone companies, leaving few options for the support network of prisoners far from home who want to stay in contact without traveling long distances. It also means that while prisoners’ outside contacts are responsible for paying for calls, the real customers are states and their prison systems. (It’s one reason, perhaps, that prison chat boards are full of complaints about poor customer service and dropped calls.)



Meanwhile, those who benefit from the prison phone system have little interest in seeing calls cost less. In 42 U.S. states, you see, there’s a commission—”kickback,” as the report describes it—that is returned to the state as a portion of the revenue generated by inmate calls. Officials argue that those funds are needed to pay for things like family visits, rehabilitation programs, and the care of ailing prisoners. When New York state banned the practice five years ago, the commission stood at 57 percent. Authorities aren’t eager to broadcast the details, but a request under Pennsylvania’s right-to-know law found that for fiscal year 2007, inmate phone commission returned some $7 million to the state.

There’s a long history, of course, of the American prison population serving as a resource from which the powerful extract value. Inmate calling is a captive, lucrative market dominated by phone companies you’ve never heard of, like the aforementioned Global Tel*Link, Securus Technologies, and CenturyLink, all born after the forced breakup of AT&T in the mid-1980s. Those companies argue that this niche market is, as one Securus executive testified before Congress in 2009, “special.” For one thing, there’s the matter of collecting on all those collect-call charges. For another, there are extra precautions needed so that the prison phone systems aren’t used to harass witnesses, plot escapes, or generally engage in criminal activity.

Kickbacks aside, in many ways the problem is that we don’t really know how “special” the prison phone environment is, and we have little proof that the economics of a decades-old prison model that began with actual pay phones (remember them?) and human operators are still valid. Today, there are prepaid calling plans that eliminate the need to float collect-call fees, software that can monitor human speech, and voice-over-Internet-protocol technologies (VOIP) capable of reducing costs; the tab on one 20-minute call to Carbon County Correctional in Pennsylvania equals the monthly bill on my home Vonage plan. Interestingly, we do see innovation at the margins, like startups that equip prisoners’ family and friends with numbers local to the prison but that, thanks to the magic of the Internet and VOIP technology, ring through their long-distance phones, thereby avoiding long-distance fees.

The popularity of that little VOIP scheme is prompting the federal prison system, with its standard 23-cent long-distance rate and 6-cent local rate, to adapt. According to the Government Accountability Office, the Bureau of Prisons is considering a location-neutral rate, making up some of the difference with modest fees on its new secure e-mail system. At the state level, though, there seems to be little to encourage tapping new, efficient programs to benefit users.

Over at the FCC, the Wright Petition is asking the federal government to cap state prison long-distance rates at 25 cents a minute, which might spur questions about those much-higher state commission rates. Yet there’s no rush at the FCC to tackle the prison-phone challenge. “You know the two or three things in the corner of your desk that you might get to if you get through with everything else?” says Lee Petro, Wright’s counsel. “Martha Wright’s petition has been sitting in that pile.” The FCC isn’t the world’s fastest-moving agency, and proposals that look like aid to prisoners can have an inertia all their own. But it’s not particularly good for anyone if, in the most efficiently connected age the world has ever known, artificially high costs keep prisoners cut off from the outside world.

Nancy Scola is a New York City-based political writer whose work has appeared in the American Prospect, the Atlantic, Columbia Journalism Review, New York Magazine and Salon. On Twitter, she's @nancyscola.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>