How the Prison Phone Industry Further Isolates Prisoners

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When inmates are able to speak to friends and family while incarcerated, it not only improves their lives, but also, studies have shown, reduces recidivism after they leave prison. But to fill in budget holes or to make a profit, many state and local governments work with companies that put a high price tag on this basic need for the incarcerated.

A handful of companies monopolize the prison phone industry, and their control of the market allows them to charge exorbitant rates for inmate calls to their homes. States that contract with these providers tend to choose the contractor that provides not the lowest price, but the highest commission rate for the state. As a result, prisoners and their families may pay up to $1 per minute on a call.

In addition to the lucrative phone call industry, prison phone companies have begun to dabble in providing video visitation services, mostly to jails. Instead of meeting a prisoner in person, friends and families can chat with them over a platform similar to Skype. Offsite video visitation with inmates at the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center in Louisiana costs approximately $13 for a 20-minute video session—if “visitors” travel to the jail, the screen time is free. And these “visits” have become the only way inmates can see their “visitors,” since in-person visits were eliminated at the jail.

The shift to high-dollar video has become increasingly common. Until recently, one company even mandated banning in-person visits in their contracts. By 2015, 74 percent of jails using video visitation software had ended in-person visits—ending prisoners’ in-person interaction with friends and family.

Video visitation is a relatively new phenomenon, but advocates have been fighting to reduce expensive phone fees for decades. Four years ago, the Federal Communications Commission responded. Since 2013, the agency has attempted to place caps on prison and jail phone prices: The most recent rules would have required companies to charge no more than $0.25 per minute for in-state and out-of-state calls.

But with its devotion to the free market, the Trump administration moved to derail the plan. In a federal appeals court case, the newly Trumped FCC chose not to defend its own regulation limiting price-gouging of in-state calls, and in June, the court struck down the cap for in-state calls, though the interstate cap remains. Note that in-state calls account for more than 92 percent of all inmate calls.

Those who argue for free markets usually point out that consumers have the freedom to choose which company they patronize. That’s not the case with the prison communications industry.

The new high-dollar fees don’t disturb the states—which, after all, don’t pay for prison phone calls and video visits. Indeed, states and local jurisdictions can (and most do) get a cut of the profits through commission payments. Prison officials often argue that commission payments are essential to pay for prison services, but a portion of those commissions can also go to salary and benefits or general state funds. In 2012, Pennsylvania received $6.9 million in commission. More than half of this money went to Pennsylvania’s general fund. If a state or county is looking to pad the coffers, it’s incentivized to contract with a company that provides the highest kickback, even if the company makes it extremely expensive for inmates’ families to take a phone call or conduct a video visit.

In short, families of inmates are subsidizing the prisons where their loved ones are locked up.

But even before incarceration, the imprisoned tend to be poor—and likely, so are their families. A 2015 report by the Prison Policy Institute estimated that the median annual income of an individual pre-incarceration was $19,185 in 2014, which is 41 percent less than that of the non-incarcerated ($32,505). According to an Ella Baker Center for Human Rights report, one third of the families the center surveyed went into debt from covering the costs of communicating with a relative behind bars. One formerly incarcerated individual told the Ella Baker Center, “I didn’t call very much because I know it cost my family a lot of money.”

Some states have backed down from commission payments, reducing the price of inmate calls. In 2007, New York passed a law mandating that “the [corrections] department shall not accept or receive revenue in excess of its reasonable operating cost,” eliminating its annual $20 million kickback. The commissioner of the department indicated that the subsequent increased phone call usage more than offset the loss in revenue.

New York is not sui generis. Adams County Jail in Mississippi reverted from video visitation back to traditional visitation last year. The county’s sheriff told the Natchez Democrat, “A lot of people couldn’t afford those calls. … I think everybody should have the right to check in on their child and make sure they’re OK.”

A vast body of research illustrates that when inmates feel connected to their families and communities even while in prison, they are less likely to commit more crime once released. But when states and companies can make money off of inmates, why take a loss of income in the cause of reducing recidivism? Mass incarceration is profitable. And the high profits garnered from prisoner communications may very well serve to perpetuate it.

Sometimes, the corollary to trickle-down economics is imposing fees on an unsympathetic population least able to pay.

Tax Cuts for the rich. Deregulation for the powerful. Wage suppression for everyone else. These are the tenets of trickle-down economics, the conservatives’ age-old strategy for advantaging the interests of the rich and powerful over those of the middle class and poor. The articles in Trickle-Downers are devoted, first, to exposing and refuting these lies, but equally, to reminding Americans that these claims aren’t made because they are true. Rather, they are made because they are the most effective way elites have found to bully, confuse and intimidate middle- and working-class voters. Trickle-down claims are not real economics. They are negotiating strategies. Here at the Prospect, we hope to help you win that negotiation.

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