“…I was in prison, and you came to visit me.” Matthew 25:36
As Christmas and New Year’s Day draw closer, incarcerated persons and their loved ones face the prospect of spending the holidays separated by prison walls. It is a time when human contact is needed more than ever to cope.
That contact comes at a price. When was the last time you paid per minute for a phone call? I’m guessing many people below a certain age don’t even know this used to be a thing. Nationwide, incarcerated people and their families pay an average of $5.74 for a 15-minute phone call. As of 2018, the most expensive 15-minute call in the country was in the Mississippi County, Arkansas Detention Center at $24.82.
Prison phone calls are an industry. A $1.4B industry dominated by 8 telecom providers---Securus, Legacy, Telmate, Paytel, GTL, ICSolutions, AmTel, and Century Link. Calling rates are set by the contract between the telecom provider and the correctional system, and as with other components of our largely privatized correctional system, the profit motive leads to warping of policies to the detriment of the humanity of prisoners and their families. Most telecom contracts award large commissions back to the correctional facility they service—up to 94% in the case of the Alaska Department of Corrections. Some contracts even prohibit in-person visits. That’s right—an institution performing a governmental function like corrections agreed to no in-person visitation, in favor of the more profitable mode of contact by telephone.
Prison phone call profiteering disproportionately affects low-income families, who can spend thousands of dollars and go into debt to maintain contact with their loved ones behind bars. For those with the view that convicted prisoners deserve whatever they get: a large portion of those affected by this system are persons who are in jail awaiting trial because they couldn’t afford bail. To add insult to injury, the egregious charges apply to phone calls to their defense counsel as well.
Martha Wright-Reed was one such family member impacted by this predatory system. Known as the “Rosa Parks of prison phone calls,” she became so frustrated with the amount of money required to keep in touch with her incarcerated grandson that she sued the telecom provider. The judge dismissed the lawsuit and punted to the FCC, to which Ms. Wright-Reed filed a petition in 2003. The FCC at long last agreed to cap phone call rates in 2016—but the cap only applied to federal incarcerees, which are a very small portion of the total number of incarcerated persons in the US. The current legal battle revolves around the FCC’s authority to cap rates set at local and state levels.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Rep. Bobby Rush have jointly introduced legislation--the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act in the Senate and the Martha Wright Prison Phone Justice Act in the House—to address these injustices.