The Cautionary Instruction: The cost of keeping in touch, prisons gouge inmates’ families

Friday, 26 July 2013 10:24 AM Written by  Matt Mangino

20130726 prisoncalls photocom86485205A telephone may be a prisoner’s only connection with the outside world. Often incarcerated far from home, some prisoners don’t get visitors -- the telephone is a lifeline.

That connection maybe the difference between a former prisoner becoming a productive member of society or returning to prison.

According to the NAACP, studies have demonstrated that maintaining a connection with loved ones, friends and families while incarcerated is a key component in reducing recidivism

Phone calls from the outside do more than keep prisoners entertained. They've actually been shown to keep them from re-offending, maintaining family connections that prove vital when inmates leave prison.

The Post-Gazette reported that prisoners are paying exorbitant rates to call their loved ones. To dial an out-of-state number, an inmate in a Pennsylvania state prison pays $9.35 for a 15-minute call. At the Allegheny County Jail, they pay $10.65.

In all but a few states the phone-service providers return a large share -- sometimes more than half—of revenue collected from each phone to the facility in “commissions”. These commissions provide a ready source of discretionary money for cash-strapped prison systems to cope with a rising inmate population. But they do so by taking money from those whom Foster Campbell, one of Louisiana’s five public-service commissioners, called “the least of these…poor people in bad situations [with] no voice…and no political clout.”

In 2012, Pennsylvania took in $6.9 million as its share of prisoner phone call charges. Slightly less than half went to buy amenities for inmates; the rest went to the state's general fund.

Allegheny County also netted $1.1 million last year for the jail's prisoner welfare expense trust fund. Inmates using one of the jail's 336 phones pay a $1.80 connection fee for local calls and $2.70 for out of state. They're then charged between 4 and 53 cents a minute, depending on what area code they're calling. 

Supporters of the telephone fees argue that the profits cover higher costs of monitoring inmate calls and can offset the prison rehabilitation programs. Disconnecting inmates from family undermines a key element of rehabilitation. The policy takes away a powerful means of fighting recidivism. In the end taxpayers pay a higher price to lock up the same people over and over. 

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has officially proposed new rules that would lower interstate pay-phone rates for prisoners and their families, an issue that has been on the table for nine years.

The FCC said it is proposing rate caps, eliminating per-call fees, and other changes that would lower the costs of keeping in touch for inmates, who in some states pay as much as $15 for a 15-minute phone call.

(Image: Thinkstock Images/Getty Images)


Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.

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