With opportunities to contact the outside world greatly limited, many prisoners highly value the chance for a phone call, whether it’s with a friend, loved one, attorney, supporter, or someone else. Prison visitation isn’t always an option, so sometimes it’s only possible to communicate over the phone, because letters aren’t always enough. Consequently, there’s a booming industry in placing calls from prisons, and that industry, it should come as no surprise, exploits prisoners and their families.
Attention was brought to this issue last year, when a number of media outlets started looking at the firms that dominate the prison phone industry and the rates they charged to place calls. With a literally captive audience, they have a prime customer demographic, because they can charge essentially whatever they want in the knowledge that their customers have to pay or go without. Commission payments forwarded to the state in association with prison phone calls drive costs up extremely high, turning phoning home into a costly endeavor that can also be difficult, as many prisons restrict access to phones, limit outgoing calls, and put other restrictions in place that make it hard to phone out.
These are ostensibly designed to limit contact with conspirators on the outside, and to maintain order and safety in the prison. That’s certainly what prisons tell advocates, organisations, and prisoners concerned about limitations on contact, but it’s also clearly linked with the desire to exert complete power and control over prisoners. When you cannot even place a call without receiving an audit and permission from someone in charge, it underscores the fact that you are in a powerless position, at the mercy of the people who are incarcerating you, and you’d better remain ‘on good behaviour’ if you want to retain your phone privileges.
In evaluations of prison phone systems, it’s clear that it should be possible to administer a cheap, functional phone system for prisoners that allows them to keep in touch with the outside, without costing the state an undue amount of money, making it possible for inmates to place calls at reasonable costs. And that there are very persuasive arguments for having such a system in place; for example, if prisoners are supposed to make contacts on the outside to help them find jobs, housing, and other support when they get out, that’s going to be hard to do if they can’t place calls or can’t afford to make them regularly. For prisoners, the high cost of the system creates functional problems when it comes to integrating with society upon their release, which can directly contribute to recidivism; the very thing prison is supposed to be preventing, but often seems to be actively cultivating.
And for families, these exploitative rates are also abusive. With the movement of prisoners from site to site, and decisions to place prisoners in remote areas, it may be difficult if not impossible for family members to schedule in-person visits, particularly on a regular basis. For them, phones may be the only chance to hear the voices of their loved ones in prison, and the high cost for those phone calls can hit them especially hard, particularly when combined with phone scams involving false collect calls from prison that result in high charges on their phone bills.
Being low-income increases your chance of ending up in prison, and if you’re low-income, there’s a high chance the rest of your family is too. When you can’t afford to call home, it’s unlikely your family can afford to help you, especially if they are already balancing other expenses associated with your incarceration. Those can include costs for supplies you need, as well as support for family members on the outside who may be deprived of your income and support. At the very time that hearing your voice might make a big difference, and that being able to speak with your family members could make you feel connected with the world, you might only have enough money for occasional fleeting phone calls.
Meanwhile, the business of the world outside spins by without you. Birthdays and other anniversaries pass, and landmark events occur in the lives of the people you love. You’re forced to catch up in fits and starts through rifled mail and brief, monitored phone calls made from public areas where other prisoners wait impatiently for their chance to be extorted by the phone company for a few minutes on the line with someone from home, or a person who might offer them a job on the outside. The sense of social isolation can be extreme in prison, and lack of action on high phone bills is only one example of how the government not just tolerates but actively supports the alienation of prisoners in US culture.
And yet, the government seems surprised that the prison system is not very functional, and genuinely shocked that prisoners often experience extreme culture shock when they emerge into the outside world. They’ve been cut off, separated from the things that might help them adjust and ease into the world, and the government is astounded that some return to the life they knew before prison? It wants to express surprise that prisoners have difficulty connecting with their families when they return, and can have trouble settling back into their communities, which have spun by without them while they’ve been trapped behind bars? It wonders why prisoners might feel resentful and disconnected from the civilian world? Really?
The FCC claims that it is finally taking action on the prison phone industry, and one can hope that it will actually do so, and that we’ll see a real change in the fees charged to prisoners for making phone calls. But this is only one part of a much larger picture, a confluence of policy intended to keep prisoners at arm’s length from the outside world, and that larger picture needs to be addressed too. Basic contact with other human beings is a human right, not a privilege.