If you’ve attended a baseball game or outdoor concert this summer, you know all about being price-gouged for the food or drink you grab at the concession stand. It all may be a good bit more pricey than what it would cost in a restaurant or bar, and several times more expensive than buying it all in a grocery store or some other retail outlet. But what choice do you have? Short of sneaking in a hot dog or a bottle of water under your shirt or in your purse, you’re a captive audience.
The same principle seems to be at work when it comes to another captive audience – literal captives. The Federal Communications Commission has recently been looking into the phone rates that are being levied against inmates, and their families and friends, when they place phone calls from behind bars. Even though, in the outside world, the price of using a phone has plummeted so dramatically that the gabbiest among us can make calls around the country or abroad for a pittance, inmates are, in many cases, being charged rates so exorbitant that it’s as if the explosion in cellphone use and bargain calling plans over the last 20 years had never happened.
The Economist magazine reported in May that a phone call that a prisoner makes outside the walls of his lockup can carry an upfront fee reaching $4.99, followed by per-minute charges in the neighborhood of 89 cents per minute. If an inmate wants to talk to loved ones on the outside for 15 minutes, that one call would total $18.34. On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that an inmate in a Pennsylvania state prison placing a 15-minute call out-of-state would have to pay “only” $9.35, while the cost from Allegheny County jail would be $10.65.
Corrections officials say that they must purchase expensive monitoring and recording equipment for their phone systems, which accounts for the increased cost. Programs that prevent recidivism are, in some cases, financed through the phone charges. But many of the telecom companies offering these services are monopoly providers, giving them the freedom to charge whatever they want. Then, many municipalities, counties and states are putting the extra money back into their own coffers. According to the Post-Gazette, the commonwealth took in almost $7 million from prisoner phone calls last year, with half being used to purchase “amenities” for inmates, and the other half being poured into the state’s general fund.
Opponents of the phone rates have argued that it’s a form of extortion against those least able to pay, but who have no other option. Foster Campbell, a public service commissioner in Louisiana, described them as “the least of these … poor people in bad situations (with) no voice … and no political clout.”
There is, of course, an obvious solution to beating the excessive cost of phone calls in jails and prisons, and that’s obeying the law and staying out of jails and prisons in the first place. And there’s little will, either among politicians or the general public, to make life too comfortable for inmates as they repay their debts to society. But even though being incarcerated is a form of punishment, it’s also meant to rehabilitate and reform. Several studies have shown that inmates who have, and maintain, ties with loved ones while they are imprisoned are less likely to become inmates again.
Lowering the cost of phone calls in correctional facilities could save us all some money in the long run.