Many of us don't think about things like phone call prices for prisoners. But a recent letter from a coalition of civil rights groups, as well as conservative leaders, sent to the FCC went after the practice of so-called "predatory prison phone rates", that is, the cost of calls for prisoners currently incarcerated.
The letter, drafted by an unlikely coalition of elements including left-wing standards like the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, the National Organization of Women and others, but also backed up by conservative leaders like Gary Bauer and David Keene, called for reform in the way prisoners are charged for phone calls.
While under normal circumstances, their political viewpoints differ wildly, on this point they were quite clear, and quite unified, with Keene himself describing unnecessarily high prisoner phone call prices as doing "nothing to further the safety of civil society", while Wade Henderson of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights referring to the rates as "ways to pad their (prisons') bottom line".
And while this may sound like little more than an emotional issue, the numbers are disturbing in their own right. For instance, one study revealed that an interstate collect call from a prison requires a $3.95 connection fee, regardless of the length of the call, and that the actual rate of the call may run as high as 90 cents per minute. By comparison, under some plans, it can cost as little as 12 cents a minute to place a call via cell phone to Singapore (though these prices do vary substantially based on provider selected, that is actually the price with AT&T U-verse international calling, though taxes, fees, and surcharges aren't included, and likewise on Comcast Digital Voice), which makes the 90 cents per minute from prison look terrifyingly overpriced by comparison.
The rates in question, according to the letter, are the result of competitive bid to establish phone service at a prison, not by normal market procedures, and the phone service for prisoners is an entirely different system than that used by the Bureau of Prisons itself, which pays just six cents per minute on local calls, and 23 cents per minute for long distance, both together less than one third the cost to prisoners.
It's a difficult issue to say the least; strong family connections reduce recidivism, the practice by which prisoners find themselves returning to prison for subsequent crimes, yet prison budgets are already heavily taxed, and thus finding alternate sources of income is necessary when tax collections are down in a bad economic environment. Still, with the rise of VoIP and similar systems, it seems clear that keeping prisoners connected to families, which improves morale and thus behavior in prison itself, should be a top priority for prisons.
While this is a divisive issue, it is clear that new concepts are required to not only keep prisons' budgets above water, but also keep prisoners themselves in contact with that which is likely to help in prisons' stated missions of keeping criminals off the streets, by ensuring that, once they leave the confines of the system, they are criminals no longer.
Edited by Brooke Neuman