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Prisons share blame for cellphones in the cellblock

The News Herald, Dec. 12, 2021.

Guards found 26 cellphones and chargers stashed inside five basketballs tossed over a barbed-wire fence at Pasquotank Correctional Institution, a state prison near Elizabeth City, North Carolina.

The state Department of Public Safety announced the contraband seizure on social media the day after Thanksgiving. Nine days later, the agency showed off another trophy: 10 cellphones and chargers were hurled over the fence at Columbus Correctional in bundles wrapped with electrical tape.

Anti-contraband campaigns are good for public relations. In Facebook posts and press releases, prisons show taxpayers that they’re intercepting drugs, weapons and other illicit items that would otherwise find their way to inmates’ hands. Phones are one of the most commonly smuggled and highly prized commodities on the inside, and prisons themselves may be fueling the demand.

North Carolina inmates receive phone privileges to make prepaid and collect calls. The state’s contract with telecom vendor GTL sets the rate at 10 cents per minute, with a $5.49 fee to connect through a live operator. Users also pay for the privilege of paying — there’s a $3 credit and debit processing charge and a $2 fee to receive a bill by mail.

Those costs add up for inmates’ relatives and friends, people who didn’t commit the crime but are made to share in the punishment. Contractors aren’t solely to blame. The state of North Carolina receives kickbacks that account for 58% of call costs, according to the Human Rights Defense Center’s Prison Phone Justice initiative.

That kind of price gouging is sadly par for the course. North Carolina is in the middle of the pack, ranking 24th among the 50 states in affordability for a 15-minute phone call with an inmate.

The national average for that 15-minute call is $5.74, CBS reported last year. Washington Post columnist Katrina vanden Heuvel notes that running prison phone systems is a $1.4 billion racket.
States give telecoms exclusive access to what can only be described as a captive audience in exchange for a cut of the fees, and the prison phone cartels are given free rein to shake down the law-abiding citizens who pick up the receiver.

Inmates’ families spend an estimated $2.9 billion a year on phone calls and payments to their loved ones’ commissary accounts, the Prison Policy Initiative reports. Commissaries’ inflated prices for toiletries, clothing, shoes and snack foods would make an airport gift shop blush. The average family shells out roughly $13,000 a year to communicate with an incarcerated loved one and purchase necessities.

That burden falls disproportionately on the low-income and minority families statistically more likely to have a near relative who is incarcerated. Often, the loved one behind bars was the primary breadwinner.

“Public prisons are public only by name,” University of California law professor Hadar Aviram told nonprofit criminal justice reporting network The Marshall Project for a December 2019 expose on the shameless price gouging. “These days, you pay for everything in prison.”

You can still send letters and cards without paying a king’s ransom, but probably not for long. In October, North Carolina began outsourcing prison mail service to Maryland-based TextBehind, which scans correspondence sent to inmates and provides photocopies that will be delivered to them in lieu of the original documents. Prison officials say the process will keep paper coated with drugs like liquid fentanyl out of cellblocks.

As for phones, their presence poses considerable security risks. Inmates with gang ties can coordinate crimes outside prison walls, order attacks on rivals and arrange help with escape attempts.

Most wardens come from corrections, criminal justice and military backgrounds. If any majored in economics, they’d know enough about black markets and supply and demand curves to tell their chains of command that prison price gouging is at cross purposes with efforts to root out contraband.

From the file in a cake to the cellphone wedged inside a lumpy basketball, smuggling forbidden goods behind bars is nothing new. But when a dollar-store nail file sells for a 500% markup in the prison commissary, it’s getting harder to tell the “good guys” and “bad guys” apart.