Sunday, June 17, 2012

Prison Phone Justice - A Father's Day Roundup

This Father's Day, as our thoughts turn to our families, Between the Bars is joining 27 other organizations in the Prison Phone Justice Campaign to urge the FCC to approve the Wright Petition – a set of policy recommendations regulating the high cost of prison phone services.  Oscar Vielma captures the goal of the campaign quite eloquently: We "would like to bring to your attention an issue that needs to be adjusted, or something to really think about.  It has to do with these phone bills in prison and how high the costs are".  We asked our bloggers to explain why the costs of phone services are so expensive and how their families have been impacted by them.   We've categorized their responses under a special campaign on the site.   Here's a round up of some of the things you'll find there.

Maintaining family ties across prison walls isn't only a drain emotionally, it's a serious drain financially.  William D. Linney explains that it's not just 12 hour distance that makes visits cost prohibitive, in his institution, the family must pay $60.00 per visit for the act of visiting.  Marteze Harris cites a May 2012 issue of Prison Legal news which reported that Arizona makes visitors pay a $25 background check fee.  The background check alone may be a barrier to visitation. Many "people just aren't letter writers, and lots of people hate writing, it is not in their DNA".  For some it's difficult to organize their thoughts on paper.  In a poem Nathaniel Lindell sums it up: "Distance denies visits, and over years, ink dries."

This leaves phones.  In Benjamin Clay's institution, the cost is $1.20 per minute, costing the family $24.00 for a 20 minute phone call.  That's just the rate during the call, a family can pay up to $60.00 for the ability to receive collect calls on their cell phones or else they must pay for an additional land line.  Once they can, Andy Blackmore writes that you are subject to the collect calling rates.  "Apparently my father's long-distance provider considers 6AM - 11PM EVERY DAY to be "Prime Rate" time."   Some are also subject to low balance fees

That's a problem because it is known that one of the key factors in reducing recidivism is the maintenance of strong family ties.  These connections prevent recidivism in two directions.  Prisoners need the support of family during and after prison.  That makes intuitive sense.  With few exceptions, ask anyone who has overcome an adversity and they will tell you, they didn't do it alone.  Amondo Duckworth, a father in prison who has three boys, 6,7 and 16 writes "prison is a lonely and hard experience, without a support system, and hearing a familiar voice can truly be the different between someone giving up and being motivated to become a better person."  Doyle Ray Tesch Jr writes "My Dad is everything to me.  He is a supportive male role model in my life.  Without him I would have killed myself."  Doyle only talks with his father once a year.

2.7 million children have an incarcerated parent.  Maintaining a connection with their parents can keep them from repeating the cycle of incarnation.  Michael Gomez who is enrolled in the BU Prison University Program uses his 20 minute call to talk to his 16 year old daughter.  "When I was 16yrs old I quit school, I didn't value education.  I felt that I set a bad example because she also quit school at the same age.  So, I educated myself further…I am currently a sophomore with a 3.5 GPA.  Through phone conversations, I have been able to preach to my daughter the importance of having an education.  From taking my advice she enrolled in Job Corp and received her GED and Certified Nursing Assistant's license".  Carl Fountain shares a similar story.  His son was being bullied.  "As soon as he finished his conversation explaining to me his fears, I had less than 2 minutes to tell him not to commit a crime of retaliation…" 

These abuses are allowed to occur because prison phone systems are largely unregulated by the FCC. Marteze Harris cites a recent ruling that allowed the Arkansas Department of Corrections to continue receiving a 45% "commission" from Global Tell Link (GTL).  Michael Gomez, whose institution uses GTL, reports that calls to his family show up as being from Texas.  In his technology class he learned that this is because GTL routes all of the calls across the country through Texas.  They claim that the cost is due to their complicated set up of monitoring and recording.   In reality they are using VoIP.  Since it's cheaper, they can charge more, and have a greater profit margin for both themselves and the "commissions".

It doesn't have to be this way and this is where the Wright Petition comes in.  The Wright Petition would place rate caps on interstate and state level prison phone services and require contracts to be bid on the basis of who can provide the lowest price to the consumer.  Where this practice has been banned, prices have dropped by 30%-80%! 


This father's day, we hope you'll support the rights of families to stay in contact with their loved ones without having to bear an extortionate financial burden.  Urge the FCC to approve the Wright Petition which will keep these practices in check.  These policies are simply the right thing to do for our families and communities.  As Gregor Barnes Watson writes, we can "work toward reducing the high cost of inmate collect calls.  It will reduce crime, and prevent future victims.  Is that not a worthy goal?"  Supporting the Prison Phone Justice campaign is as easy as reading and witnessing the stories of those affected by it.  Join the conversation by leaving comments and share these stories through your social network.

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