Author, Expert & Speaker

cant-afford-to-call-homeImagine a world without social media. No Facebook or Twitter—no way to reach out to relatives and friends. Imagine a world where the telephone is the only communication tool available. Welcome to prison.

I learned to lower my expectations for communications on day one of my incarceration. Letter writing and telephone calls became my sole means of connected outreach. Images of the 1982 movie classic E.T. entered my mind. Like E.T., I felt the strong need for contact with loved ones after being stranded in a foreign place. The phrase E.T. phone home resonated with me and transformed into Mark phone home.

In the California prison system, like in so many other states’ systems, outgoing phone calls are permitted on a scheduled basis. The calls are collect, paid for by the recipients. Herein lies the opportunity for the financial exploitation of inmates and third parties.

State and federal inmates face “astronomical calling rates—in some cases a whopping $17 per minute or more—thanks to what inmate advocates call ‘usurious’ practices by two companies, Securus Technologies and Global Tel*Link, that control the $1.2 billion prison phone market” according to an article by Motherboard. The impact on families—especially the children in low-income families, is huge. The cost of just a ten-minute phone call at $17 a minute amounts to $170—just for a quick “hello, I love you, I miss you, goodbye” call.

In October 2015, after pressure from prison reform groups, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed a cap on the cost of phone calls made from prisoners to their families. Here is a sample of the proposed capping of costs for prison and jail inmates’ collect calls from an October 22, 2015, FCC press release: “New caps reduce the average rates for the vast majority of inmate calls substantially, from $2.96 to no more than $1.65 for a 15-minute intrastate call for most calls, and from $3.15 to no more than $1.65 for most 15-minute interstate calls.”

After the FCC announced the new caps, Securus and Global Tel*Link sued the FCC. These companies objected to the rate caps; caps would negatively impact their bottom lines. A Securus CEO actually claimed the company was trying to stop a new FCC effort to impose rate caps on intrastate calls because caps would encourage “jail unrest.” Securus Technologies CEO Richard Smith filed an affidavit that stated that

inmates will be angry if they believe that Securus is charging the wrong rates. There could be damage to Securus phones and equipment, as well as a threat to overall security and corrections personnel including inmates within the facilities. Having been in this industry for eight years, I have experience with jail unrest and I know that issues with the phones can trigger it.

If you’re desperate, place the blame for saving your financial butt on prison unrest; it happens all the time.

The legal issues surrounding the cap are intricate and complicated and go beyond the scope of this blog. Having said that, regulating the obscene profit margins these companies enjoy at the expense of a captive audience would uncomplicate the matter. The Marshall Project reports that “inmates and their families spend $1.2 billion a year on phone calls.” The capping issue remains in the courts, waiting to be sorted out.

A legal challenge in Orange County, California, is an example of such an issue. As reported in the Orange County Register (OCR) on October 5, 2016, plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit claim they have been harmed by “grossly unfair and excessive charges” for phone calls originating from inmates in the Orange County Jail (OCJ). The article says this concerning Global Tel*Link, the provider of the OCJ’s inmate phone system: “In return for operating the phone systems, Global Tel-Link pays the county a minimum commission of $4.3 million a year.”

The commission paid to the county necessarily raises the cost of inmates’ phone calls to their families and friends. It doesn’t seem ethical for the county government to skim off the profits from fees paid by inmates’ families and friends to stay in touch, to call home. Instead, it makes sense that the county not receive a kickback and that inmates’ family and friends benefit from reduced phone rates. On this point, the OCR article quotes an attorney for one of the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit, Ron Kaye: “We’ve found that there are exorbitant phone rates being charged to the families of people in jail, and the counties are making the lion’s share of the money.”

What is your experience with the cost of phone calls received from an incarcerated person?

  • What rate per minute do you pay?
  • What is your average monthly cost to speak with an inmate?
  • Have you not accepted a call from an inmate due to financial hardship?

Based on your responses to these questions and any other information shared with me, I will report my findings in a blog in early 2017. I look forward to hearing from you on this important prison reform issue.

Image courtesy of 123rf

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