Leticia Miranda

The Criminal Cost of Talking to a Loved One Behind Bars

By Leticia Miranda, Reposted from Colorlines.com

When Martha Wright’s grandson was moved to a prison outside of her hometown of Washington, D.C., she didn’t expect that a short 5-minute conversation with him could cost up to $18.

“You just have to get everything out in one line,” she laughs.

For Wright, phone calls and writing letters are the primary ways she can stay in touch with her grandson, Ulandis Forte, who has been in prison for nearly 20 years. Forte was 19-years old when he was charged with murder in a Washington, D.C. court. According to Wright, he was home from school on break when a birthday brawl took a turn for the worse and another boy wound up dead. “He did the time,” says Wright. “I told him he has to go forward and repent for that.”

Now 38-years old, Forte is set to be released on parole this August. In the two decades since he’s been imprisoned, Wright has been among the only constants in her grandson’s life. His mother died in 2006 and his father is paralyzed from a basketball accident. She’s 86-years old, retired, blind and has “all kinds of illness,” she says. When she was in better health, Wright would visit her grandson in prison. She traveled to see him after he was transferred from a DC-owned state prison in Virginia to one in New Mexico, and then bounced around from Arizona to Ohio. He’s now housed at the Allenwood Correctional Facility in White Dear, Pennsylvania. 

She’s too fragile to make the four hour trip to visit her grandson in person, so she’s only able to manage the trip twice a year. Between visits, they talk for about five minutes twice a week. But that contact comes at a steep price.

“It’s terribly expensive,” she says. “It’s awful.” In 2000, Wright, along with other families of prisoners, filed a class-action lawsuit against Corrections Corporation of America seeking federal action to get relief from what they considered exorbitant phone call charges. In 2007, after the case failed to end in a settlement, the petitioners filed another petition that would put a limit on how much companies could charge prisoners and their families for phone calls, and eliminate costly connection fees. The Federal Communications Commission has yet to make a ruling on the proposal.

On Mother’s Day, a campaign spearheaded by a trio of media justice and prison reform groups aimed to force the FCC’s hand in the matter. The Center for Media Justice, along with Prison Legal News and Working Narratives, are leading an effort to get prison phone rates onto the FCC’s legislative to-do list. Last week, the groups encouraged supporters to submit stories about their hardships communicating with loved ones in prison to then be turned over to the Commission in hopes that it will finally move toward regulating the private companies that oversee prison phone calls.

For the activists who are involved, it’s an issue that falls clearly along racial lines. About 35 percent of prisoners are Latino and 37 percent are Black, according to March statistics from the Bureau of Prisoners. And many of them are poor. About 88 percent of people awaiting trial or serving time in jail had no income or made less than $1,200 a month, according to Bureau of Justice. While incarcerated, prisoners make only cents an hour. Because Forte doesn’t have a livable income, Wright sends him $275 to help him out with basic expenses.

“Communities of color are most directly impacted by the high cost of prison phone calls,” says Steven Renderos, national organizer with the Center for Media Justice. “What’s at stake is not just the price of a phone call, it’s the health and well being of our families and loved ones struggling to stay connected.”

Prisoners can usually call home in two ways: they can call collect or use a debit card issued by the prison. Debit cards are usually the cheaper options, but they’re not available in all states and still costly. In March, Wright’s grandson didn’t have enough money on his card for their usual phone calls, so they only spoke about three minutes one week, she says. That call cost $18, including taxes.

“He buys so many minutes and when his minutes run out, they cut off on you,” says Wright.

The “they” in this case is Global Tel*Link, a private Alabama-based phone company contracted with Pennsylvania to provide prison phone services. Last year the company acquired three of its competitors and now contracts with over half of state prisons to provide phone services. In 2008, the company gave Pennsylvania over $7 million in additional state revenue. Over $82,000 of that revenue was generated by roughly 21,000 interstate calls like Forte’s to his grandmother in Washington, DC. The practice is known widely as a “kickback”, a percentage of the phone call profits collected by the state. The companies inflate the phone rates to cover the cost of the commission and still make a profit.

For years, states have contracted with private companies to provide telephone services through a typical bidding process administered through the state’s Department of Corrections or, like in Pennsylvania, the Governor’s Administration Office. In some states the public utilities commission approve of the final phone rates and commission. But in others like Maine, the Department of Corrections has no oversight from the commission, or any other agency on how it sets up the rates. Nationwide, only eight states and the District of Columbia have stopped accepting kickbacks - California, New Mexico, South Carolina, Nebraska, Michigan, Rhode Island and Missouri.

Because most state prisons are located far away from any metropolitan area, many prisoners pay long distance fees to stay in touch with family members and friends.

“Quite honestly I don’t know anyone, middle class or not, who could afford the cost of these calls,” says Nick Szuberla, a media artist with Working Narratives, a national multi-media social justice organization. “It’s not even just because people are low-income. I don’t think anyone could afford these calls.”

Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections told Colorlines.com that the kickbacks are placed in their Inmate General Welfare Fund which is used to purchase items like weight lifting equipment, sports equipment, satellite radio, religious supplies and visiting room supplies. Before New York ended kickbacks in 2007, the Department of Corrections used the revenue to provide health services for prisoners living with HIV/AIDS. But health services are something that prisons are required to provide by law, and that fact was hammered home by activists in New York who led a successful campaign to end kickbacks and reduce prison phone rates back in 2007.

In order for inmates to successful re-integrate into society, it’s crucial for them to maintain ties to their families while incarcerated, say advocates. A 2005 report by the Anne E. Casey Foundation found that prisoners’ first and last resort for housing and support are their families. When prisoner’s maintain contact with family during their incarceration, they’re also less likely to return to prison, according to a report from the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center.

“A vast majority of those people are going to come back to the community,” said Deborah Golden, an attorney with the D.C. Prisoners’ Project at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee and counsel on the Wright case. “Every piece of research we have says that stronger family ties increase the odds that someone will have a successful reintegration.”

Now, the focus on the FCC to finally act. But that’s much easier said than done, according to some observers.

“Apparently, the biggest reason for the failure of the Commission to act in recent years is the lack of adequate interest and staffing,” said Lee Petro, a volunteer attorney on the Wright case, in an email to Colorlines. “With the resolution of the other long-pending matters, the recent additions of two new Commissioners, and new technologies developed by the service providers that has decreased their costs of service, prompt action now will give relief to struggling families in these tough economic times.”

Although the telecom industry is a strong influence in Washington, the campaign has already garnered the support of Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. In a recent speech at Catholic University, she asked the commission to review the languishing documents which “have significant implications for making phone service affordable for inmates and their families who are currently making unbelievable economic sacrifices in order to keep their families connected.”

For Wright and her grandson, that connection has proved pivotal for nearly two decades. 

“He wants to be a counselor [when he gets out],” Wright says of her grandson. “He wants to go around and help people in jail.”

Leticia Miranda is a writer and researcher at New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute.


Reduced Prison Phone Rates Pave the Road to Rehabilitation

By Leticia Miranda (this piece was co-authored with Clarissa Ramon, Outreach and Government Affairs Associate at Public Knowledge.) This blog is cross-posted with the New America Foundation.

Chris Duran understands the value of a phone call. Duran pays roughly $2.80 for a 15-minute phone call to talk with her partner who is incarcerated at a detention center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. That same call in Colorado would be $5.00, the difference is attributed to the unregulated prison phone rate system. Phone companies will often include high commissions to state prisons within contracts in exchange for being the exclusive service provider. The rate of these commissions inflates the cost of phone calls for families in states that have failed to regulate this practice.

Many times expensive phone calls create a barrier between a prisoner and their family's ability to stay connected and provide crucial support for loved ones. Luckily for Duran, she and her partner live in one of the eight reformed states that have ended the practice of  commissions.  New Mexico’s rates are relatively low;  prisoners are  charged roughly$.20 a minute to talk with loved ones.  “The only way that our family stays together and stands out is that she has someone to call on the outs who loves her,” said Duran in avideo recorded last year by theMedia Literacy Project in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “Really that’s the only way we have to stay in contact, through the PCS phone system.” For Duran’s partner and others behind bars, phone calls can mean the difference between maintaining relationships that make leading a healthy life outside of prison or falling into a cycle of moving in and out of prison.

Research suggests that prisoners who maintain contact with family or friends fare better upon release than those who do not maintain contact. A 2005 report by the Anne E. Casey Foundation found that families are a person’s first and last resort for housing and support when released from prison.  The prison system considers a prisoner’s return home to their parents, children, partner or other family members to be the primary reentry plan upon release. It’s crucial that prisoners maintain connections with loved ones for support and to adequately prepare for reentry into their communities upon release. Whether or not a system ensures that prisoners are adequately prepared for reentry has an impact on whether or not they will return to the system.

The average U.S. recidivism rate lingers around 40 percent. According to a surveyconducted by Pew and the Associate of State Correctional Administrators, 43 percent of released prisoners in 2004 were re-incarcerated within 3 years for new offenses or parole violations. Between 1973 and 2009, the nation’s prison population grew by 705 percent, resulting in more than 10 percent of adults behind bars.

Not only do high incarceration and recidivism rates affect families,  they also affect taxpayers whose taxes fund a portion of state prison budgets, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. Annual state and federal spending on corrections exploded by 305 percent, or 52 billion people, during the past two decades. During that same period, corrections spending doubled as a share of state funding and accounts for 1 in 14 general state fund dollars, according to the Pew Center on the States.

These astonishing trends incited various prison justice advocacy efforts and drew the attention of conservative lawmakers whose shrinking budgets have caused them to re-evaluate how correction dollars are spent. For example, South Carolina’s prison population tripled over 25 years and was projected to grow by more than 3,200 inmates by 2014. Conservative groups like Right on Crime, a partnership between the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Pat Nolan Prison Fellowship,worked on passing a prison reform package along with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. The initiative ultimately gained the support of justice advocacy groups like the ACLU.

Prison reform advocates recognized that over half of the state's population was incarcerated for nonviolent crimes. They found that the state could save $350 million by adjusting sentences for nonviolent offenses and targeting barriers prisoners face upon release. Within the past years, all 19 states that cut their imprisonment rates also experienced a decline in their crime rates, according to the Pew Center. It’s clear that a dollar invested in rehabilitation yields a greater return by keeping released prisoners out of the system and reducing the correction costs for states over time.

Congress also targeted this country’s high recidivism rate by passing the Second Chance Act in 2008. This piece of legislation authorizes government funds for nonprofits and agencies that would improve the conditions facing prisoners upon their release. These programs use resources for housing, employment, substance abuse treatment, continuing education and family programming. Reducing recidivism saves taxpayer dollars in the long run and reduces prison populations which would alleviate a prison system’s dependence on funds collected from commissions.

A policy reform that should be addressed by both states and the FCC is ensuring that prisoners can stay connected with the loved ones by keeping phone costs low. Other states can follow the lead of the eight reformed states and outlaw the practice of commissions. The FCC can also regulate interstate phone rates which would lower the costs for families, enabling them to stay better connected.  “Throughout the time I was in the system I had a really strong support system with my family,” said Duran. “The only way I could stay in contact with my family was through the phone.” She was released in 2002 and has been able to stay out of the detention system. 


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