Meaningful communication is foundational to society. Almost always, talk precedes, and then motivates action. It can bring understanding and foster trust. It keeps us sane, as it is the foundational component in all relationships.
Positive and ongoing contact with loved ones helps prisoners throughout their incarceration, and as they face reentry challenges once they are released. Communication between prisoners and their families has been shown to reduce the likelihood that those prisoners will commit new crimes when they return home. This means fewer new victims, safer communities, and more law abiding citizens.
So is it a good idea to allow prisoner phone calls to remain financially restrictive? According to a recent study, prisoners’ families and loved ones pay over $360 million per year in telephone costs to their incarcerated loved ones. Of this $360 million, States receive over $140 million in kickbacks or “commissions.”
Prison is punitive, and rightfully so. But a convicted person’s family and loved ones should not be direct recipients of that punishment. This practice punishes prisoners’ families for maintaining contact with their loved ones by forcing them to subsidize states’ penal budgets. Though families will always bear some financial burden in supporting their incarcerated loved ones, forcing them to pay an excessive $140 million is immoral and contrary to the goal of the criminal justice system.
The government’s focus on gaining short term revenue by allowing prison telephone rates to skyrocket is short sighted and works against the interest of the communities it serves.
Recognizing this, states including Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Michigan, South Carolina, California, and Missouri have banned prison phone kickbacks completely. Other states, however, are far from addressing this problem. For example, over 13 states receive a kickback of at least 50% from incarcerated phone call revenues. In 2008, Alabama received an astounding “commission” of 61.5%, which amounted to $5.5 million in subsidized revenue. Alabama housed approximately 30,508 prisoners in 2008, which translates to an additional family phone cost of $292 per year. From that $292, $112 went to actual phone costs and the remaining $180 went directly to the State of Alabama’s Department of Corrections. This burden is significant as the majority of parents incarcerated are reported to have earned less than $2,000 per month prior to incarceration. Placing the burden on the poor of our society to fund failing criminal justice policies is, at the least, regressive and inacceptable. In addition, the practice functionally contributes to the breakdown of families and their support in keeping the rest of the community safe.
Over 1.6 million people are currently incarcerated in the United States; approximately 700,000 will be released this year. Research has shown that maintaining family relationships is a significant factor in the reduction of recidivism. For example, the Jane Addams Center for Social Policy and Research determined that “[f]amily roles and relationships are important in reentry planning . . . . Family connections and other social networks impact not only families’ and children’s well-being but also the achievement of social goals such as the reduction of crime and the building of vibrant communities.” Additionally, the Urban Institute identified that released prisoners who had “closer family relationships, stronger family support, and fewer negative dynamics in relationships with intimate partners were more likely to have worked after release and were less likely to have used drugs. It is evident that family support, when it exists, is a strong asset that can be brought to the table in the reentry planning process.” These findings have long been recognized by corrections officials. Describing the purpose behind prisoner telephone access, the Federal Bureau of Prisons states, “Telephone privileges are a supplemental means of maintaining community and family ties that will contribute to an inmate’s personal development.” When released prisoners have a supportive family, they are more likely to find a job, less likely to use drugs, and less likely to be involved in criminal activities. The support and accountability that a stable family provides have a clear, positive impact.
This issue, unfortunately, is not a new one. In 2000, Martha Wright and others plaintiffs brought a class action lawsuit against the Corrections Corporation of America and several prison phone companies. Due to a jurisdictional issue, the federal district court dismissed the case and referred it to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Since that referral, Wright has petitioned the FCC on two occasions in an attempt to get the FCC to reform the current prison phone policies. Wright’s latest petition (“The Wright Petition”) requests that the FCC impose price caps on prison phone rates. Over three years later, this petition is still active before the FCC. Justice Fellowship recently submitted a public comment to the FCC encouraging them to reform the current policy.
Allowing companies to charge exorbitant rates for prison phone calls works against all of our efforts to create safer communities, increase respect for victims, and transform the offenders into law abiding citizens. We invite you to join Justice Fellowship in this effort by contacting your senator or congressman and voicing your concern and support for reform of this unfair and unjust practice.