Wingnuts Finally Find Establishment Clause Violation »« Inhofe Brings the Crazy

The Scandal of Prison Phone Calls

One of the many ways that governments screw over poor families and lock people into lives of crime is by charging huge amounts for phone calls from prisoners to their friends and families. Companies profit from it and so do state corrections budgets because they’re inflating the cost artificially:

According to Prison Legal News, the cost of making a long distance phone call from a prison in Oregon includes a $3.95 connection fee plus 69 cents a minute, costing $14.30 for a 15-minute call. Compare this with making a public call outside of prison, which costs anywhere from 5 to 10 cents per minute for long distance calls on landlines, costing a maximum of $1.50 for a 15-minute call.

For many families with loved ones behind bars, the choice between accepting a collect call and putting food on the table is a real and painful decision. It may come as a surprise to many that the increased cost of these calls has nothing to do with the actual service that is being delivered. What is actually happening is that prisons have designed a business system that allows them to offset their operation costs onto the shoulders of innocent families and to reap a profit.

The state prison kickback rate varies, with Texas accepting a 40% commission rate for phone calls and charging up to $6.45 for a 15-minute call. That same phone call provided by the same company in Maryland yields a 60% commission rate and costs a family member $17.30.

And this at a time when long distance charges are becoming a memory for many people. I haven’t paid a long distance charge in years because I get my landline through my cable internet provider. Cell phones also don’t carry any long distance charges either. It would be entirely easy for those calls not to cost a dime, but that would rob companies of profit and corrections departments of revenue.

Why does this matter? Because study after study has found that regular interaction with one’s family is a key factor in helping inmates reintegrate with society and avoid future legal troubles. A huge number of people in prison are fathers and mothers with children, often there on nothing more than drug possession charges. And by isolating them, it becomes far more likely that they will be forced into a life of crime, often violent crime, upon release. This is counterproductive and needs to stop.

Comments

  1. Stevarious says

    And by isolating them, it becomes far more likely that they will be forced into a life of crime, often violent crime, upon release.

    But, but, but… high recidivism rates can be used to justify longer prison sentences! And longer prison sentences cause higher recidivism rates! You wouldn’t want those poor private prison companies to make less of a profit, would you?!

    WHY DO YOU HATE CAPITALISM!?!?

  2. uncephalized says

    “Why does this matter? Because study after study has found that regular interaction with one’s family is a key factor in helping inmates reintegrate with society and avoid future legal troubles.”

    This is an argument from consequences, and while it’s a good one, to me it’s much weaker than the simpler moral argument, which is that it is wrong to isolate people from their loved ones unnecessarily, period. I don’t think we should be required to show harm to society to just do the right thing by people. We’re already locking them in a cage, which is bad enough. We don’t need to deprive them of their other basic human needs at the same time.

    Why do we treat criminals like they’re not human beings? Oh, probably because we (by “we” I mean the government and law) treat everybody that way to one degree or another. We’re just allowed to be a little more blatant about it with prisoners.

  3. Brownian says

    What is actually happening is that prisons have designed a business system that allows them to offset their operation costs onto the shoulders of innocent families and to reap a profit.

    In the eyes of tough on crime conservatives, there are two types of people: law abiding citizens who never, ever, ever, ever, ever break laws (unless they are bad laws passed by socialists), and criminals who will stop at nothing to break into your home just to violently confront you for the spare change on your night table. And ye shall know each by the company that they keep. Ergo, anyone who willingly wishes to speak with a felon (or is related to one) must be guilty of something; they’re not innocent.

  4. erichoug says

    Gee, what a surprise!

    Living in Texas I have long known that the primary role of prisons is to make money for a select group of people. Why on earth do we lock up people that aren’t dangerous and are largely guilty of only posessions of small amounts of illegal drugs. The massive growth of private prisons here along with the rise of mandatory sentencing has proven extremely profitable. Of course the tax payer is footing the bill and ever clamoring to spend more of their hard earned money to make a productive member of society into a dependent.

    Prisons should be only for violent or repeat offenders. Property crimes are sort of a grey area. If someone steals from you they should be forced to pay the full value of what they stole, plus a percentage beyond that, plus a healthy fine. This could be deducted from future earnins or taken as a lien against property. You lock up people who pose a threat.

  5. anandine says

    Maybe this is part of why so many cell phones are smuggled into prisons. Jailers say it is to run criminal enterprises, but maybe it’s just to talk to their girlfrield cheaply.

  6. says

    Usually, when I hear the phrase “revolving door prison” it’s intended to express the idea that criminals are getting right back out of prison. When I hear about unnecessary cruelty like this, it makes me view the revolving door image in the other direction: The prisons have a financial incentive to make their inmates into repeat offenders. Cutting inmates off from their family during their sentence certainly sounds like an effective way to ensure they’ll be coming back.

  7. Stevarious says

    In the eyes of tough on crime conservatives, there are two types of people

    You are forgetting the rich, who are, of course, above all consideration on this point. Rich people don’t ‘commit crimes’. They ‘make mistakes’, and if they get caught, being dragged into court to face a judge before being declared not guilty on a technicality is the harshest possible fair punishment no matter the crime mistake.

  8. noastronomer says

    @anandine #5

    That is another good reason to stop over-charging for phone-calls. People smuggle phones in to talk to their families and then those phones are used for ‘other’ purposes.

  9. jamessweet says

    I’ve written about this in the past, as I have a brother-in-law who is frequently in and out of jail. You generally have to pre-pay, and one time my wife did pre-pay twenty bucks, thinking that would last for at least a few phone calls. Nope, not really. One very short one. Fucking extortion.

    Now, as I write in the blog post I linked to above, I don’t entirely blame the prisons. Their purpose is to make money, and they are playing by the rules when they do this, however unethical. I think it ought to be against the rules. Collect call rates from prison should be federally regulated.

  10. sunsangnim says

    It’s a natural progression towards harsher and harsher treatment. Conservatives obviously want to be “tough on crime” and liberals are afraid of being seen as “soft on crime.” The result is a ratcheting effect in which penalties can only get tougher.

  11. Abby Normal says

    [S]tudy after study has found that regular interaction with one’s family is a key factor in helping inmates reintegrate with society and avoid future legal troubles.

    Why is this something a for-profit prison would care about, or at least care about in a negative way? Reduced recidivism undercuts their profit base. Prisons make more money manufacturing criminals than productive citizens, a lot more money. And if they can get them back for longer stays, all the better. Longer sentences reduce turnover in their captive work force. The entire idea of a privatized prison system is not merely counterproductive but anti-social, anti-liberty and every which way I look at it, downright ludicrous.

  12. slc1 says

    I have quoted this before but it bears repeating. As Mr. Brayton’s fellow Michigander, the late John Voelker, a former Michigan Supreme Court Justice, once wrote, American criminal jurisprudence may best be described as, “lock ‘em up like a mad dog and keep ‘em locked up”.

  13. doktorzoom says

    “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” –Anatole France,

  14. says

    Yeah, it’s simply evil the way they’re willing to soak those who can least afford it.

    I haven’t paid a long distance charge in years

    Hell, I haven’t paid a phone bill in years b/c I use Ooma with free voice over IP. High-speed internet is all I need.

  15. says

    Now, as I write in the blog post I linked to above, I don’t entirely blame the prisons. Their purpose is to make money, and they are playing by the rules when they do this, however unethical.

    But that’s why the profit motive needs to be removed from prisons. Private prisons are the problem, extorting money by way of phone calls is the symptom.

  16. Anri says

    This is an argument from consequences, and while it’s a good one, to me it’s much weaker than the simpler moral argument, which is that it is wrong to isolate people from their loved ones unnecessarily, period. I don’t think we should be required to show harm to society to just do the right thing by people. We’re already locking them in a cage, which is bad enough. We don’t need to deprive them of their other basic human needs at the same time.

    Unfortunately, this argument only works if the person you are speaking to is willing to concede that 1) other people have rights that should be respected, 2) prisoners are humans that should have certain rights respected, and 3) that human rights are more important than profit. In this sort of argument, assuming any, let alone all of these, is likely a mistake.

    Witness the US discussion on universal health care. Almost nobody with political savvy bothers with the obvious argument that creating such a system would reduce sickness and suffering (as it appears to have done so throught all of the rest of the industrialized world). All of the mainstream arguments are economic in nature – all just variants on ‘but think of the poor dollars!’ in one direction or the other.
    The only question apparently worth considering is the morality of using money from one group or another – not if suffering should be battled with little thought of cost.

  17. jamessweet says

    But that’s why the profit motive needs to be removed from prisons. Private prisons are the problem, extorting money by way of phone calls is the symptom.

    A fair point; you are simply going a step further than I am. I agree private prisons are potentially problematic (woah, I swear the alliteration was unintentional there) for a number of reasons, and perhaps you are right that plugging each hole one at time with a complex regulatory infrastructure is not feasible. My point remains: I don’t particularly blame the private prisons themselves, because making money is what they do. But it is the role of the government to prevent undue harm to inmates and their families in the name of profit; whether this is accomplished by regulating what phone rates private prisons are allowed to charge, or by doing away with private prisons altogether, I am not familiar enough with the issues to say. From a gut instinct point of view, though, running a prison doesn’t sound like a good fit for the capitalist model…

  18. Ace of Sevens says

    I used to work in the utility business. Prison rules also make it nigh-impossible to take care of financial obligations and cancel utilities if you find yourself there unexpectedly. This means when you get out, you’ll be unable to get utilities in your name, get somewhere to live or get any kind of credit.

  19. Azkyroth says

    This is an argument from consequences, and while it’s a good one, to me it’s much weaker than the simpler moral argument

    …what the hell do you think a moral argument is if not an appeal to consequences?

    (Arguments from consequences are only fallacious for “is” questions. They’re necessary for resolving “should” questions.)

  20. Azkyroth says

    I agree private prisons are potentially problematic (woah, I swear the alliteration was unintentional there) for a number of reasons, and perhaps you are right that plugging each hole one at time with a complex regulatory infrastructure is not feasible.

    The motivation for the establishment of prisons by a free and just society and the motivation of a for-profit enterprise are fundamentally incompatible.

  21. uncephalized says

    @Azkyroth #21: “…what the hell do you think a moral argument is if not an appeal to consequences?”

    I mean that there are moral issues that should be considered even if the effect(s) on other people and consequence(s) to society are unknown or insignificant. Perhaps I should have been more clear. But to me it’s the difference between “we shouldn’t murder children because we won’t have enough scientists, janitors and policemen in 30 years if we do” and “we shouldn’t murder children because they are human beings and murdering people deprives them of their fundamental right to life”. Obviously the second argument still talks about consequences but it’s in a very different spirit.

  22. jakc says

    I’ve been dealing with state legislatures for more than 20 years, and this particular scam has always made me ashamed. I’ve seen a few brave politicians fight against it, and the most I’ve seen done is that the families of the prisoners – the people who pay this money – might get some say in how this kickback money is spent. For those of you still unclear, this is not about private prisons (bad as that idea is), and I understand the need for the state to keep some control over phone calls. But what is appalling is how DOC officials defend the system: We can’t figure out how to refund the money to the families, so we keep the bribe, I mean kickback. Yes, the money doesn’t get refunded until the end of the month, and the bribe (let’s just call it what it is) based on the the overall volume of calls, so it can vary. But GODDAMMIT these families are victims too – they have likely lost the financial support of a parent, and now have to spend money trying to help him/her in prison. And we, through dishonest and sanctimonious politicians and DOC officials, are responsible for screwing this families, who have not committed a crime, one more time. I would have more respect if the state made the phone calls free, and simply robbed the families at gunpoint. That would at least be honest.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply