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Calling Home: Rethinking Prison “Re-entry”

Image credit: http://prisoncellphones.com/blog/2011/08/16/jail-phones-generate-county-revenue/

High prison phone rates decrease the chances of a successful return home for America’s incarcerated population. At 58-12, we strive to examine the conditions that perpetuate inequality in places and among people. Prison is a place in which a record number of Americans find themselves. To put it in perspective, the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.[1] Our prison population is a reflection of Americans locked up for nonviolent crimes that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. Moreover, Americans are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.

High incarceration rates also mean high re-entry populations. More than 600,000 individuals are released from state prisons each year.[2] Our criminal justice system’s high volume of prisoners, the privatization of prisons, and harsh sentences have made it increasingly difficult for formerly incarcerated individuals to return home, reunite with their families, and become productive members of society. The process of adjusting to life after release from incarceration has been termed “re-entry.”[3] Whether motivated by public safety, the high costs of recidivism, or compassion, we must ask how communities can ensure that formerly incarcerated individuals, returning to our neighborhoods, have the best chance of a successful reentry. Studies have shown that familial support throughout an individual’s re-entry process is one of the best ways to ensure a successful reentry. Friends and family members will make sure that when a formerly incarcerated person gets out, she will have food to eat, a place to sleep, and emotional support. However, the high cost of phone calls in prisons weakens familial connections. Therefore, high phone rates in prisons means that the chance of a successful reentry may decrease even before an inmate is released from prison.

An exhaustive analysis released by Prison Legal News has revealed that with only limited exceptions, telephone service providers offer lucrative kickbacks (termed “commissions”) to state contracting agencies to obtain exclusive, monopolistic contracts for prison phone services. These contracts are priced to enrich the telephone companies by charging much higher rates than those paid by the general public, but are further inflated to cover the commission payments. Indeed, $143 million per year are taken out of the pockets of prisoners’ families—who are the overwhelming recipients of prison phone calls.

For example, PLN unpacks the arbitrary fees that  Tel*Link (GTL), a company that has contracts in multiple states’ prisons, forces on people who want speak to their loved ones. “GTL charges family members a $4.75 service fee for each $25.00 payment made to a prepaid phone account via credit card (i.e., a $9.50 surcharge for a $50.00 payment to a prepaid account – almost a 20% fee). There is a $5.00 charge to close an account and withdraw the remaining balance; also, if an account is not used for 90 days, the balance is forfeited to GTL. Another prison phone company, Securus Technologies, charges a monthly bill statement fee of up to $2.99 plus a “processing fee” of up to $6.95 for credit or debit card payments made online or (ironically) by phone.”

High phone rates have due process implications, as well, as incarcerated individuals cannot afford to contact potential attorneys. Moreover, attorneys are not incentivized to take on prisoners’ cases because simply contacting incarcerated individuals is too costly. PLN and like-minded groups are advocating for the banning of kickbacks, or “commissions”, in prison phone contracts. To read the full report, please visit: https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/23083_displayArticle.aspx


See also:


Adam Gopnik, “The Caging of America”, The New Yorker, available at http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2012/01/30/120130crat_atlarge_gopnik


Damian J. Martinez, “Family Connections and Prison Reentry”, available at https://ccj.asu.edu/downloads/paper-martinez

[1] Adam Liptak, “U.S. Prison Population Dwarfs That of Other Nations”, N.Y. Times, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/23/world/americas/23iht-23prison.12253738.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[2] Damian J. Martinez, “Family Connections and Prison Reentry”, available at https://ccj.asu.edu/downloads/paper-martinez

[3] 58-12 among other activists recognize that “reentry” is a problematic term as it suggests that every person in the United States, starts at a place where all of the liberties and benefits of living in the United States is available to her. It also suggests that once one leaves prison, she is able to “re-enter” into that place of privilege.