Phone communication serves as a lifeline for prisoners and their families

Artika Tyner Posted by Artika Tyner, Author, Professor.

Public Policy Professor and Diversity and Inclusion Officer at the University of St. Thomas, Leadership Author, Civil Rights Attorney

Phone communication serves as a lifeline for prisoners and their families

For 2.7 million children, prison phone calls serve as a vital “lifeline” for remaining in contact with their incarcerated parent. In fact, 62% of women who are incarcerated in state prisons are mothers. While, 51% of men who are prisoners are also fathers. Prison phone calls serve as an indispensable tool for these children and countless family members to remain connected with their incarcerated loved ones. However, the high cost of these calls serves as an active barrier to remaining in contact.

This Thursday, October 22nd the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will have the opportunity to implement regulations which will foster critical connections between family members and their incarcerated loved ones by supporting fair, just, and reasonable prison phone call rates.

The high cost of prison phone calls is driven by the associated commissions paid to prisons from phone companies in return for entering into service contracts. Companies like Securus and Global Tel-Link have profited from this structure. In 2014, Securus earned a 51 percent gross profit margin the biggest jump in years. Families must bear the undue financial burden of this injustice. Therefore, we have a moral obligation to make prison phone calls affordable and accessible for all.

One prisoner described a phone call as his “heartbeat” during a community dialogue held at a state prison. Prison phone calls allowed him to parent his child beyond the restraints of his prison cell. In a research study conducted by the Community Justice Project, formerly incarcerated community members characterized a prison phone call as a “lifeline” or “fistful of gold.” Each of these depictions reflect the significance of phone communication as a fundamental human right which promotes and honors human dignity. However, the high cost of prison phone calls serve as an insurmountable barrier to communication for many. When survey participants were asked the question: “if they had as much contact as wanted,” the vast majority of respondents (78 percent) indicated that they did not have as much phone contact as they would have desired. When asked “why contact was limited,” the two main reasons the participants gave regarding their limited contact included: 1) issues with affording the costs of the phone calls based on their prison wages, and 2) financial burdens on their families forcing loved ones to deny the calls.

The FCC is charged with ensuring that all Americans have access to communications services at just and reasonable rates.” Under the leadership of Commissioner Mignon Clyburn- acting chair, the FCC in 2013 took the first step in fulfilling this mandate by placing a rate cap on interstate calls (which cross state lines). This ruling lowered the cost of interstate calls to 21 cents per minute for prepaid calls ad 25 cents per minute for collect calls.

On Thursday, the FCC stands poised to make a far greater impact by addressing the need for comprehensive reform of intrastate call rates/structure. These are the calls originating from state prisons and county jails. Reform will ensure that the voices of incarcerated parents are heard. The fathers and mothers who expressed the heartbreak of not being able to maintain contact with their children during their formative years. Reform will also elevate the silent voices of over 2 million children who routinely experience truancy, homelessness, depression, aggression, and poor classroom performance. These experiences have been linked to the lack of regular communication with an incarcerated parent.

Reform will also help to alleviate the financial burden experienced by families who must routinely make the difficult decision of choosing between accepting a collect phone call from their loved one and meeting their basic budgetary expenses. A recent survey of families demonstrates the urgent need for reform when nearly two-thirds of families who have a member in jail or prison struggle to meet their basic needs, including 50 percent that are unable to afford sufficient food and adequate housing.

Comprehensive reform to the prison phone call structure will restore the critical “lifelines” needed to support strong families and build safe communities.




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