Call for reform: Improving access to phones in jail and prison populations
While COVID-19 has drastically affected the jail and prison populations across the country, the pandemic has brought one benefit to the inmates—communication. Since the pandemic started, some jails have provided inmates with cell phones or allowed free phone calls with a monthly limit of 500 minutes. This method of communication was vital during the pandemic when inmates needed updates on the health and well-being of their families. However, the cost of calls when the pandemic ends could have a drastic effect on the lives of jail and prison populations.
For many inmates across the country, especially those incarcerated for lengthy sentences in prisons, physical accessibility to their loved ones is not always feasible. Geographic location, time and money may all be barriers that stand between the family members of an incarcerated person and the inmate. Many jails and prisons offer telephone calls to inmates, but calls are often costly and limited to only a few minutes of contact. Although our country tends to dispose of the rights afforded to humans once they become incarcerated, contact with loved ones should not be a disposable right, especially when technological advancements make methods of communication easily affordable and accessible.
The prices of jail and prison calls are inflated by a “kickback”—a contract between the government agency and phone company that allows the government to receive a portion of the cost of phone calls. While eight states have banned kickbacks altogether, other states have kickbacks that result in over nine million dollars’ worth of money paid by the families of inmates and received by the contracted government agencies. Depending on the state, a fifteen-minute call can cost anywhere between twenty cents and almost six dollars.
To put it in perspective, AT&T offers unlimited talk and text for as low as thirty dollars for the entire month. The issue is not whether it is economically feasible for inmates to have access to low-cost calls. The issue is whether government agencies are willing to give up their profits in exchange for the mental health and well-being of the inmates they incarcerate. While states such as Maine charge their inmates $5.30 per 15 minutes and collect over three hundred thousand dollars in kickbacks, other states, such as Rhode Island charge a mere .44 cents per 15 minutes and do not receive kickbacks.
Maintaining ties to family and friends throughout incarceration has proven to be essential in supporting an inmate throughout their sentence. A study in 2009 showed that “prison inmates who had more contact with their families…[were] less likely to be re-incarcerated.” Although we know that ties to family affect recidivism rates, families of incarcerated loved ones reported “gas…renting a car…facility rules” and distance as reasons that prevented them from maintaining in-person contact. By making phone access available at an affordable rate to inmates, recidivism rates may decrease as a result of the relationships continued and strengthened through phone calls.
Eliminating kickbacks serves not only incarcerated persons, but also families across the country who hope to communicate with their loved ones at an affordable rate. A person who is imprisoned is stripped of their freedom and often placed in challenging conditions. At a minimum, inmates should not be forced to pay for their own incarceration in the form a kickback fee. Jail and prison call rates must be reformed by eradicating kickback laws to provide inmates with the support necessary to survive any length of imprisonment.