For prisoners and their families, the telephone is more than just a means of communication. It is a lifeline. For urban families far from mostly rural prisons, the phone is often the only way to stay in touch with a loved one “behind the wall,” and studies have shown that sustaining family ties is key to preventing recidivism. Yet prison phone rates are so high that many families simply cannot afford to keep in touch. The Commonwealth now has an opportunity to lower prison phone rates and help build stronger communities. It should do so.
A typical in-state call from a prison in Massachusetts has a three dollar connection fee, regardless of the length of the conversation, and then a 10-cent per minute charge, which results in at least $4.50 for only a 15-minute call, not including other fees tagged on by the phone companies. The calls are generally either made collect or through a pre-paid service, which means that the families themselves are required to pay in order to maintain contact with their loved one. Most of these families are living in impoverished circumstances and cannot afford these fees.
To add insult to injury, the quality of telephone service for those in prison is terrible. The connection quality is usually extremely poor and dropped calls happen frequently. Not only does this prevent loved ones from connecting, but it usually means an added financial burden on the families of prisoners. The three dollar connection fee is levied every time a call is made, so if a call is lost, parents, children, or siblings are required to pay even more to reestablish the connection they just made.
There is no reason for prison calls to cost so much. Technology has brought telephone costs down radically in recent years, and other states have far lower rates. Indeed, much of the bill for Massachusetts prison calls has nothing to do with the cost of providing service. Telephone companies vie for exclusive, monopoly contracts in each facility by offering “commissions” to the county, or in the case of the Department of Correction, to the Commonwealth. These commissions make up over half of the cost of calls in many counties, and over a third of the price of calls in the DOC. In county facilities, the commissions are used to pay for things like uniforms or prison programs, and in the DOC they are funneled into the Commonwealth’s general fund.
It is unfair to ask relatives of prisoners, many of whom struggle to get by, to pad the state coffers or help cover the cost of running county jails. Reducing this burden on prisoners and their loved ones will help build safer communities. A 2003 review of studies said, “Prisoners who experienced more family contact… experienced lower recidivism rates and greater post-release success.” It’s also good prison management to make calls affordable. A 1999 Department of Justice review of studies observed that “telephone usage and other contacts with family contribute to inmate morale, better staff-inmate interactions, and more connection to the community, which in turn has made them less likely to return to prison.”
Several family members have petitioned the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Cable to take a close look at the exorbitant costs incurred by prison telephone service providers and to cap rates at a level that provide a reasonable profit but not more. It is the DTC’s role to determine if rates are just and reasonable. It seems clear that the telephone rates that prisoners and their families are paying are not. Given the fact that technology has made phone service delivery much cheaper for everyone, the fact that prison rates remain high – and remain attached to a virtually unfettered monopoly – is something that the DTC should be interested in examining.
I was once a child with a father in prison, so I know how much a phone call can mean. No mother should be asked to choose between feeding her family or letting her child have contact with her father. The good news is that we all benefit from more just and reasonable phone rates for prisoners, in the form of reduced recidivism rates and stronger communities. Let’s hope that the DTC does the right thing.