The message was simple, reflecting a basic human desire. “I would love to speak with my wife, children and grandchildren,” Kenneth Daniels, 53, wrote. But his message had a cruel kicker: “But I can’t afford to.”
Daniels is an inmate at a Michigan state prison, and his statement was made to the Federal Communications Commission. His family in Detroit is poor, and he earns just $8 a month at the prison job he will probably do for the rest of his life — hardly enough to afford phone calls to relatives.
Nor is he alone. The FCC received abundant testimony from inmates cut off from the outside world not just by the bars behind which they serve their sentences but also by the huge payments demanded by phone companies for lines in U.S. correctional facilities.
One was Dennis Wynn, who has served 31 years and explained how he could not afford to call his dying mother. “She passed away without me ever being able to say goodbye,” he wrote the FCC. His meager earnings — just 74 cents a day — are spent on essential toiletries and food to supplement prison grub.
“Over the years, I have lost most of my contact with my family and friends due to the increased cost of a telephone call from the prison setting,” complained David Wrobleski, who has spent more than two decades in a maximum security prison. “Hello, does anybody hear me out there?” he wondered.
Last year the FCC did listen to petitioners like these, and for the first time imposed limits on interstate call rates, which typically ran about $1 a minute — often on top of connection fees. The FCC order, which went into effect earlier this year, caps these calls at $0.21 per minute for debit calls and $0.25 for collect calls. In Alabama a standard 15-minute call, which used to cost $17, is now under $3.
But this is still far more expensive than normal rates, and the calls are notorious for poor sound quality and abrupt endings. Prison phone companies, known as inmate calling service (ICS) firms, are putting up a robust fight to protect a highly profitable, billion-dollar-a-year industry. They have thrown up legal challenges and sought waivers from the FCC order, even though it covers only interstate calls, which make up just 15 percent of the calls handled by ICS companies.
Many companies have jacked up local phone rates and imposed a host of ancillary charges to make up for lower interstate call revenue, say reform advocates. That has often led, they say, to locals calls’ being more expensive than interstate calls.
“Prisoners who have a family members down the street actually pay more than family members who have a prisoner, say, in Alaska or California that are making long distance calls, which doesn’t make a lot of sense,” said Alex Friedman, managing editor of Prison Legal News.
“We won a notable battle but not the war,” acknowledged Lee Petro, an experienced FCC lawyer at Drinker Battle & Reath, a law firm that has allowed him to work pro bono on the issue for the last five years.
One of the industry’s strategies involves enlisting the lobbying heft of correctional officers, whose institutions can have revenue-sharing arrangements with ICS companies.
Prison reform advocates say this commission-based business model essentially provides legal kickbacks to jails and prisons in exchange for granting monopolistic contracts. It’s a model that is being replicated with rapidly expanding videoconferencing services offered by many of the same companies.
The Campaign for Prison Phone Justice calculates that the ICS industry paid more than $500 million over the last four years to state prison administrators in the 42 states that have not yet banned such arrangements. In addition, payments to the country’s thousands of county jails are very likely “astronomically higher” said Friedman, because of the huge churn of people processed in local jails — about 12 million annually.
The ICS industry argues that phone monitoring capabilities prevent thousands of criminal orders from being issued from the inside and solve tens of thousands of crimes every year. After years of insisting inmates should have telecom services priced comparably with those on the outside, the American Correctional Association recently sided with the National Sheriff’s Association in arguing that the FCC’s “unreasonably low rates … undermines the ability of law enforcement to detect and deter criminal activity.”
But it is an argument that does not persuade reform advocates. Peter Wagner of the Prison Policy Initiative argues high landline rates abet cellphone smuggling, which declined significantly in New York state when landline rates dropped. Mobile calls are generally not monitored and have been linked with a whole range of abuses.
Two leading ICS firms — Securus Technologies and GTL (formerly Global Tel Link) — each service 2,200 correctional facilities and together account for 80 percent of the market. Requests for comment from both companies were unsuccessful.
When the FCC issued its order — aimed at “just and reasonable phone rates” — it was hailed as a landmark decision that the agency acknowledged was “long overdue.” The FCC even argued that lowering phone rates is good policy and would lead to reduced crime rates. “The record indicates that the lack of regular contact between incarcerated parents and their children is linked to truancy, homelessness, depression, aggression and poor classroom performance,” said the 131-page FCC order. “Studies have demonstrated that increased contact with families during incarceration leads to lower rates of recidivism and associated lower taxpayer costs.” A 1 percent reduction in recidivism should save taxpayers $250 million, it noted.
Telephone contact is critical because many prisons are located in remote areas, making in-person visits expensive, time consuming and thus infrequent. The number of American children with an incarcerated parent is large — about 2.7 million — and growing. More than half of them are under 10 years old. Also, most incarcerated parents are more than 100 miles away; of those in federal prisons, 84 percent are at least 100 miles away, with 43 percent more than 500 miles away.
Close to 60 percent of mothers and fathers who are serving time never get a visit from their children, according to Ann Adalist-Estrin, director of the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated.
And what is tough for prisoners’ families is even more so for the prisoners themselves.
“If state and federal governments are going to keep people in prison until they die, 20 to 55 years after they been incarcerated, then they should at least provide us with reasonable telephone services,” demanded Ali Shabazz, a member of the Michigan-based National Lifers of America. He has served more than 50 years behind bars. “To live this long in prison takes a lot of family support and communication.”