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Article on prison phone price gouging references PLN cover story

The Guardian (UK), Jan. 1, 2012.
Article on prison phone price gouging references PLN cover story - The Guardian (UK) 2012

The scandal of phone call price-gouging by prisons

Prisoners with strong family ties are much less likely to re-offend, but why let that get in the way of a tidy overcharging scam?

Sadhbh Walshe, Wednesday 23 May 2012 16.12 ED

When a person is sent to prison, one of the most obvious and important ways to ensure a successful re-entry to society upon release to is maintain and strengthen familial bonds during incarceration. Most families are willing and eager to stay connected with their loved ones. Unfortunately, however, there are many barriers in place to prevent them from doing so, not least of which are the prohibitively expensive and sometimes downright exploitative costs.

One woman I spoke to (I'll call her Jennifer) described the difficulty of staying in touch with her brother, who has spent the past 10 years in prison.

"After 10 years, my brother was finally transferred to a location where it's only half a day's drive (550 miles) to visit. One has to make an appointment up to three weeks in advance to be able to visit; the hotel rates in the area are double anywhere else; and the emotional and financial costs to get there are great because families are made to share the cost of punishment in very literal ways."

Jennifer outlined some of those "very literal ways", such as the $70-100 on gasoline per trip, the $90 per person for a hotel room, the $50-100 for food in the visiting room. Besides, she pays $40 to maintain a landline she wouldn't otherwise have in order to be able to receive the one 3-5min collect call her brother is allotted each month, plus up to $20 for the cost of the call itself. That comes to around $400 for one five-hour visit and one five-minute phone call. Hardly what you'd call "meaningful contact". But it is nonetheless necessary.

At least in Jennifer's case, she and her husband are fortunate enough to be able to absorb these costs. That, however, is not the case for many families who cite similar experience. Most prisoners are housed in facilities located between 100 and 500 miles from their homes; some are housed more than 500 miles away. That makes regular contact visits impossible to many people – and means that phone contact is all the more crucial.

As always, when an aching void exists in the marketplace, there will be some opportunists only too willing to exploit it. In this case, the opportunists are the phone companies, of course (usually GTL, Securus, and Century Link – previously called Embarq), but also state governments, which have been helping themselves to generous "kickbacks" at the expense of inmates' families.

An exhaustive study carried out by Prison Legal News Magazine found that the vast majority of states use a commission system in which the phone company guarantees the contracting agency a percentage on every call. The average commission payment nationwide is 42% of the cost of the call, but in some states it can be as high as 60%.

That means that up to 60% of what families have to pay to receive a collect call from their imprisoned relative has nothing to do with the cost of the phone service. The same study also revealed that, in many instances, the phone company that guaranteed the highest commission payment was also the company most likely to get the prison contract.

This convenient arrangement came under the spotlight 12 years ago when Martha Wright, an elderly woman with a grandson in prison, filed a class action lawsuit, along with 28 other prisoner families, against the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). The plaintiffs objected to the company's outrageous phone costs. Wright – who is 86 years-old – says she sometimes has to forgo her monthly medication to be able to afford the $18-per-5-minute phone call costs.

The case, filed in 2000, has yet to be settled. It reached the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2007, and has been languishing there ever since. About a month ago, the FCC commissioner, Mignon Clyburn, indicated her support for the petition (to make phone services affordable to inmate families). So far, though, no action has been taken.

In the meantime, phone companies are being encouraged by some state governments to pursue price-gouging practices in prisons that would not be tolerated in the free world. More damagingly, in doing so, they are putting another barrier in place to prevent prisoners from staying in touch with their loved ones.

Considering that numerous studies have found that prisoners with strong family bonds are much less likely to re-offend, you would think that local governments would be doing everything in their power to encourage familial contact. Instead, we have a situation where the people who are being made to pay for crimes are the ones most likely to be able to prevent them.