As anyone who has ever had a loved one incarcerated long-term can tell you, prison can be a black box, throwing up barriers — both literal and figurative — to communication with family. After a while, that can make some of those inside start to feel like their true home is behind bars, which doesn't do much to fight recidivism once they get out.
While frequent phone calls can help alleviate some of that feeling of disconnection, there's yet another hurdle in that case, one that exists only because it's profitable: the inmate phone system. What most American inmates — or, more accurately, their families — pay to connect a phone call would have your average consumer on the street rushing to the next phone provider faster than you can say "free market."
But with no other options, inmates in some states pay up to 20 times what a similar call would cost a person on the outside. Change could be coming. The Federal Communications Commission recently signaled its interest in reforming the prison phone rate system.
The Arkansas Department of Correction, through a contract with prison phone provider Global Tel-Link — one of a handful of niche telecom providers who hold sway over the inmate calling industry — collects a 45 percent commission on every inmate phone call placed. According to documents supplied by the ADC, commissions from inmate calls paid to the department during the first 11 months of 2012 totaled $1,789,489, an average of $162,680.81 per month. That's down from the ADC's 2011 commission of $2.2 million, an average of $184,052.50 per month.
While the ADC doesn't keep track of how many calls were placed, they do track how many minutes were used by inmates. According to documents supplied by the ADC, during the first 11 months of 2012, ADC inmates placed 9,159,506 minutes of calls to in-state numbers, and 617,690 minutes of calls to out-of-state numbers. Currently, inmate calls are capped at 15 minutes for personal calls and 30 minutes for calls to an attorney. A spokesperson for the ADC said that calls to attorneys are free.
For personal calls, inmates pay a surcharge of $3 per call for in-state calls and $3.95 to call out-of-state. On top of that, inmates are charged 12 cents per minute for in-state calls, and 45 cents per minute for out-of-state calls. Currently, a 15-minute in-state call would cost $4.80 before taxes, while a 15-minute interstate call would cost $10.70. An inmate making a once-a-week 15-minute call to a family member out of state would pay more than $550 per year. With all inmate calls being made collect or by a debit system that allows family members to put money on an inmate's phone account, the cost of those calls is usually passed on to the inmate's family.
With the majority of inmates coming to prison from poverty, those phone charges can add up quickly for families trying to stay in regular touch with their relatives. ADC spokesperson Shea Wilson said that all money collected by the ADC from inmate phone commissions goes into a "telephone fund" that is used to pay for operations, safety and security needs, metal detectors, computer equipment and maintenance, and other items. Wilson said the $100 "gate checks" given to inmates on their release are also drawn from the telephone fund.
Costs for inmate phone calls have been much higher in the past, Wilson said. She noted that inmates have the option of visitation or writing letters if calls are too expensive for their families. She said the ADC is also working to develop an incoming email system that would allow families to send emails that would be screened and then given to the inmate.
Wilson said that allowing inmates to call home is expensive for the state because every call must be monitored by prison employees. If the inmates and their families weren't paying more to help offset the expense of running the monitoring system, Wilson said, the cost would have to be passed on to taxpayers, or inmate phone privileges would have to be scaled back.
Wilson said that while many inmates don't want anything to jeopardize their release, "there's others who, given the opportunity, would continue their criminal enterprise behind bars. We have to have a mechanism in place to monitor that, and then, when we have things that we detect, that takes investigative time. There's a lot of costs that are associated with that."
Steven Renderos is a national organizer for the Media Action Grassroots Network. A project of the Center for Media Justice, MAGN runs the website prisonphonejustice.org, which features an interactive U.S. map that allows visitors to drill down into the prison phone contracts struck between states and a handful of prison phone providers. Renderos said prison phone calls are a $362-million-a-year industry. Because inmates are a captive market, he said, the contracts between prisons and providers often aren't brokered with value for the consumers in mind, only by which provider can return the highest rate of commission to the prison system in each state. Many families, Renderos said, have to make the choice between food or staying in touch with their relatives in prison. It's not hard to figure out which choice is going to win.
The worm, however, seems to be beginning to turn. On Dec. 28, the FCC issued a "Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" regarding interstate prison phone calls, the first step toward potentially taking action on the issue. The notice, written in response to a 9-year-old petition filed with the FCC by an inmate's mother, cites a 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office that said keeping in contact with family by phone has been shown to lower recidivism and aid inmates' transition back into society once they're released, but adds that "regular telephone contact between inmates and their loved ones at high rates places a heavy burden on inmates' families, because families typically bear the burden of paying for the calls."
"As such," the FCC notice states, "we believe that regular telephone contact between inmates and their families is an important public policy matter, and that we should consider the impact that [rates inmates pay for interstate calls] have."
In a statement attached to the notice, FCC commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn writes that helping lower inmate phone charges will be not only beneficial to inmates and their families, but to society as a whole. "There are well over two million children with at least one parent behind bars." Clyburn wrote, "and regardless of their circumstances, both children and parents gain from regular contact with one another. ... With 700,000 individuals released every year from [American prisons], it is crucial that we do whatever we can to strengthen family ties before these individuals return home."
North Little Rock resident Peggy Borel, whose son was released in November 2010 from a state prison after serving seven years, said that at times the phone charges arising from their once- or twice-a-week chats were "astronomical," but she believed those calls were crucial to helping her son feel more connected to the outside world and making sure his life was productive after prison.
Borel (who asked us not to use her son's name because he is trying to rebuild his life) said her phone bills in the first six months after he went to jail totaled around $1,800, due to a different phone plan at a detention center in Bentonville, where he was housed while waiting for a bed in the Arkansas Department of Correction. Once her son got to the ADC, the phone charges dropped somewhat, but Borel still estimates she spent more than $5,000 on calls during the years of his incarceration.
"Not everybody can do that," she said, "and there were times when it was hard."
Borel said that even though the calls were expensive, she insisted that her son call so they could talk about the up-to-date happenings in their family. Borel said that the calls made him feel like he was part of his family and had a life to return to once he'd served his time. Though there are sure to be those who ask what Borel's son could have gotten from a phone call that he couldn't get from a letter, Borel said that calls get across a depth of feeling that doesn't come through on paper.
"When you're on the phone with somebody, you hear them," Borel said. "You're hearing the emotion in their voice. You're hearing the encouragement. It's the act of hearing the reassurance and the hope in someone's voice. Or maybe the sadness in someone's voice, or the despair. ... When they're happy, you're happy. It's just like being in the same room with them."