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The Cost of Communication: How the families of inmates are forced to pay exorbitant rates for phone calls

How the families of inmates are forced to pay exorbitant rates for phone calls

By Michael Alwill - July 5, 2018

For every 1,000 people in the United States about 7 of them are in prison, which means the United States has an incarceration rate higher than Russia, China, and Turkey — as well as every single other country on Earth. And, despite the idea that prison is intended to rehabilitate many prisoners with the intention of reintroducing them into society, the United States has a 60% recidivism rate. That’s 3 out of 5 released prisoners who will return to prison at some point in their lives.

There are many ways in which the United States’ intended goal of rehabilitation can be seen instead to be one of punishment, but one of the most interesting examples of prisons punishing and dehumanizing prisoners is the attitude towards something we all take for granted: calling our families.

Before the 1990s, service rates for phone calls within prisons were similar to the rates available to the general public through commercial providers. But before long prison and jail officials began signing contracts with third-party phone service vendors, resulting in a $1.2 billion-a-year industry dominated by just a few private companies and situations in which some inmates’ families were paying up to $12.95 for a 15-minute call, a 1300% increase over what such a call would normally cost.

Part of what’s fueled these prices are the exclusive concession contracts between the prison facilities and the phone service providers, which tend to favor companies who provide larger commissions to the facility via their service fees. Those fees — the high cost of in-state phone calls — are paid by inmates and their families and are then returned to the prisons in the form of a kickback from the service providers they’ve hired.

Prisonphonejustice.org collects state-level data on these kickbacks and on the effective cost per a 15-minute in-state phone call. I decided to take their data and layer in state-level income data and incarceration rates to get a look at which people are the most burdened by these predatory practices and how well they fare economically.

Here are my results - Down the middle is a dotted line representing the national median household income, which shows us how poorer states often have more

(A) People in prison (color of the bubbles)

(B) Kickbacks flowing into the prison officials’ coffers (size of the bubble)

From which we can also see that, as is so often the case, once again the poorest individuals wind up in vicious circle, with burdens placed upon them that only increase their poverty, which in turn limits the opportunities they have for education, savings, and socioeconomic mobility.

Worse still, the FCC no longer seems to have the intention it once did to put caps on these calling rates — which means this situation isn’t changing any time soon.

America’s Puritan roots have undoubtedly shaped the country’s attitude towards prisons. There’s a strange satisfaction that many Americans feel when someone “gets theirs” and when they see what they feel to be justice meted out. But do we want to be a nation of punishers or a nation that addresses the problems of its population and seeks to rectify those problems in a meaningful way?

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