By Nikita Hamilton
State governments and telephone companies are overcharging inmates for calls made from inside prison, enriching state treasuries and corporate balance sheets while making it harder for convicts to stay connected to families, friends and others who might help them rebuild their lives, federal telephone regulators were told Wednesday.
States "are externalizing the cost of incarcerating people onto the backs of families"_ If states are incarcerating people, they need to figure out how to bear the costs," said Cheryl Leanza, a communications consultant for civil rights and progressive groups.
Leanza's comments came during a Federal Communications Commission workshop on the rates charged for inmate calls. Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn, the FCC's chairwoman, has declared that reform of the inmate calling regime is a commission priority.
"All too often, the price of a single phone call from an inmate eclipses the cost of basic monthly service, and this weighs heavily on the economically disadvantaged"_" Clyburn said. "Some studies indicate that having meaningful contact beyond the prison walls can make a real difference in maintaining community ties, promoting rehabilitation and reducing recidivism."
Other panelists agreed. Patrick A. Hope, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, suggested that lower prison phone service rates would save states money in the long run by reducing recidivism and lowering prison populations. The Vera Institute for Justice reports that the annual cost of incarceration per inmate in Virginia was $25,129 in 2012. In states like Connecticut and New York, the price per inmate ranged from $50,000 to $60,000.
Talila Lewis, founder of Helping Educate to Advance the Right of the Deaf (HEARD), was a voice for deaf and hard-of-hearing inmates as she told the story of a deaf inmate's 9-minute, $20.40 phone call to his family. She explained that hearing impaired callers often pay even higher rates than other inmates.
"Deaf prisoners experience obstacles set up by inmate calling services to connect to implement technology or relay operators. TTY requires at least 4 times as long as normal telephone communication, not including connecting to the relay operators. They get charged the same rate as hearing inmates," Lewis said.
Charles Sullivan, founder of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (C.U.R.E.), spoke on behalf of female inmates, noting that they were disproportionately disadvantaged due to the geographic locations of female prisons and unequal wages in addition to the burden of inmate calling service rates.
Leanza said that while some states have taken it upon themselves to regulate in-state calling rates, the FCC has authority to control interstate rates and to set an example for states that permit excessive in-state charges.
"You are the 7th FCC director we have been trying to get to address this problem," Sullivan told Clyburn. The workshop raised hope that she might be the last.
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Office: Common Cause National
Issues: Media and Democracy