After years of work to limit astronomical phone rates in jails and prisons, we have reached a significant milestone! The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 2-1 to cut the rates that prisoners and their families pay for interstate phone calls at an open meeting on August 9, 2013. Historically, the high cost of long-distance calls from prisoners to their loved ones across state lines has negatively impacted families—damaging the relationship between inmates and their children, increasing the likelihood of recidivism, and ultimately, decreasing public safety. State prisons often contract with a single phone company, allowing the company to charge rates far higher than market price, with the prisons receiving large commissions from the phone company profits. This has resulted in charges between $10 and $17 for a 15-minute collect call—more than a call to Singapore for any other long-distance caller.
Prison Fellowship advocates provided over 4,000 signatures to Prison Fellowship's petition to the FCC in support of change. Without them, we might not have seen a victory. Click here to read more about the ruling, including Prison Fellowship Senior VP, Policy and Advocacy, Craig DeRoche's response.
Why is the FCC ruling such an important step in making our criminal justice system more restorative? Because family involvement is a crucial element in breaking the prison cycle for those behind bars.
All prisoners have families. Nearly two-thirds of mothers and one-half of fathers in prison lived with their children before they were incarcerated. This familial relationship considerably influences a prisoner's rate of recidivism and the overall well-being of his or her children. Many research studies have found that inmates with intact families have a much higher success rate in reintegrating back into the community after release. Consequently, policies that affect prisoners’ relations with their families greatly affect the health and safety of not only those directly involved with the criminal justice system but also the community at large.
Maintaining contact with loved ones while incarcerated is a huge challenge.
Multiple prison policies harm prisoner-family relations. Visitation hours are restrictive, and oftentimes prisoners are incarcerated over 100 miles from home, making it difficult for a family to visit their incarcerated member. Moreover, child custody laws unduly endanger incarcerated parents’ ability to keep their children if their incarceration causes their children to be placed in foster care. Prison nurseries that allow incarcerated mothers to remain with their newborn children are few and far between. Additionally, prisoners’ access to the public resources they need to care for their families is limited, and incarceration, rather than family-based treatment programs, weakens prisoners’ ability to draw from the encouragement, accountability, and practical help that their families can provide.
When you can only know an incarcerated family member as a voice on the phone, each call, every minute is vital. Unfortunately, maintaining contact with family members by telephone is often extremely difficult for prisoners because of exorbitant prison phone charges. State prisons often contract with a single phone company, allowing the company to charge rates far higher than market price, with the prisons receiving large commissions from the phone company profits. This can result in charges of between $10 and $17 for a 15-minute collect call – more than a call to Singapore costs you and me. These “commissions” are a regressive and highly selective tax on prisoners’ families, who are almost all very poor.
Changing the status quo
Prison Fellowship calls for fair fees. It works for New York prisons. New York prohibits “commissions,” and inmate calls in their prisons cost about five cents per minute, local and long-distance. The Federal Bureau of Prisons charges only six cents per minute for local calls and 23 cents per minute for long-distance calls.
Prison Fellowship believes that families have intrinsic worth and that family members are responsible to care and provide for each other. States should adopt policies similar to New York that require that the contract should seek the lowest possible phone rates. Visitation policies and child custody laws should support and strengthen family interactions. Providing parents with educational and vocational training, family-based treatment programs, and post-release access to welfare benefits will equip them to care for their children after reentering society. To these ends, Prison Fellowship has actively endorsed the Second Chance Act, which authorizes grants for state and local prisons to operate family-based, substance abuse treatment programs and establishes a pilot program for home detainment of non-violent, elderly men and women with a conviction. The Act also authorizes grant money for reentry training and mentoring to help parents successfully prepare to enter the workforce. Prison Fellowship also developed recommendations for “Keeping the Family Together When a Member Is Incarcerated.” In order for true healing and peace to come in the aftermath of crime, prisoner relationships most essential to their well-being and the well-being of their communities must be a priority.