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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.
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