While many of us are making it through COVID-19 on Zoom calls and Netflix parties, prison inmates are being left behind. Prisons are major global hot spots for COVID-19, so state and local governments have taken quick action to prohibit in-person prison visitation to stop the spread. Unfortunately, this exposes a sleeper problem that should have been fixed long ago: a 15-minute phone call between prisoners and families can cost up to $25.
While the rest of us enjoy affordable communication — over video, at that — I recently heard about a family with an incarcerated loved one who spent over $300 just in the month of March on phone calls. For people in prison and their families, the level of angst and stress from the enormous uncertainty and discontinuity caused by COVID-19 is truly hellish, forcing families into a devil’s choice between spending money for food and rent vs. maintaining connection. As the criminal justice system reckons with COVID-19, it’s high time for prisons to quickly and fully enable free communication between incarcerated people — which number 2.3 million in the United States, more than any other country — and their families.
Criminal justice activists have long and persuasively argued for the need to rethink our system of mass incarceration. Why are so many people locked up in this country? How many are incarcerated for drug offenses and non-violent crimes, and is incarceration really the best way to handle such crimes? In the end, do we all feel safer because of this system? How do private companies’ profit motives drive incarceration numbers? While free phone calls for all incarcerated people may seem like small beans compared to much larger systemic changes, this “nudge” is easy to implement and would make an immediate difference for so many people, while also leading to positive ripple effects. This action does not (and should not) require layers of approval or consensus to have a major impact on families and on society as a whole.
This cause may seem insignificant in light of major events destabilizing our country right now. You may even think that this is not in your enlightened self interest. You would be wrong. Many studies convincingly show that increased contact between those in prison and loved ones reduces recidivism. Our approximate recidivism rate is approximately one-third; in other words, of the 600,000 or so prisoners who are released each year, about 200,000 return within the first year. You don’t have to agree that we are over-incarcerating in this country to believe that lowering recidivism benefits everyone.
U.S. taxpayers spend nearly $30,000–$40,000 each year to incarcerate every single prisoner (though that figure is higher in some states. Installing new technology or simply enabling free phone (or video) calls would not add much of an incremental cost, if any, and is likely well within a warden’s budget reallocation authority. But, due to the vested interests in prison telecommunications, we cannot rely on prison decisionmakers (not to mention states, cities, and immigration prison authorities) to take these steps on their own. Just two companies, Securus Technologies and Global Tel Link, dominate the billion-dollar prison telecom business. This oligopoly enjoys exclusive contracts that allow them to set prices and control the technology. Unless we demand that this quick, sensible, high-impact change is made immediately, these companies will not do the right thing.
COVID-19 has exposed this tiny crack in our broken system; charging prisoners and families for phone calls is, and has always been, unjust and simply wrong. Now is the time to make this right. Just earlier this month, New York City began offering free calls. Let’s scale this policy across the entire criminal justice system, and larger changes will soon follow.
If COVID-19 has made anything clear, it is this: the way we treat the most vulnerable members of our society matters for all of us. Regardless of our political leanings, we all long for human connection. During this time of heightened fear, uncertainty, and stress, making phone calls free for people in prison is the least we can do to make our world a better place.
What can one person do? Sit down today and choose one prison. Perhaps it is the one in which a loved one is incarcerated. Perhaps it is the one closest to you. Perhaps it’s a famous prison. Find the address — this is public information — and send a letter to the sheriff or warden in charge requesting that phone calls be made free, quickly and with high priority, regardless of resistance from telecommunication companies or pre-COVID-19 contractual terms. Say that it’s not only the sensible and just thing to do but that increased communication with loved ones is likely to lower anxiety and tension and reduce misconduct, which in turn will benefit the prison. Prison Policy Initiative provides a letter template that makes it easy to take action now.
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