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The Telephone Is A Lifeline For Prison Families. And Calls Are Outrageously Expensive

Inmate cells at Barnstable County Correctional Facility. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Inmate cells at Barnstable County Correctional Facility. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Nehemie Sans-Souci, a mother of two, works at an assisted living facility 80 hours a week and also, somehow, manages to study for her nursing degree. Her husband William is incarcerated. While Nehemie visits him as often as she can, much of the time the telephone is their only connection — and the high cost of those calls means she loses that connection for a week or more at a time.

“Sometimes I get stressed because of school, work and kids, and I just want to talk to him, and I can’t,” she says. “It just gets me frustrated and I’m sad.” While the free world barely notices cheap, flat-rate phone calls, prison families pay sky-high rates. Nehemie and others who have incarcerated loved ones regularly have to ration their love, because they can’t afford not to.

In many Massachusetts counties, a 15-minute call can cost $5, $6 or more, plus outrageous administrative fees. How many of these calls a day does it take to help a child with homework, to reassure a spouse or a mother that their loved one is okay? Normal communication can cost thousands of dollars a year. This forces an agonizing choice when a loved one calls from prison — whether to accept the call or buy groceries.

Nehemie spends over $6,000 a year in telephone fees to speak with her husband, and still regularly goes a week or longer without accepting William’s calls — and that’s on top of a $3.00 charge each time she deposits more money into the debit account William uses to call her.

Why does it cost so much? In short: corporate profits and fees paid to prisons that look an awful lot like kickbacks.

In many Massachusetts counties, a 15-minute call can cost $5, $6 or more, plus outrageous administrative fees.

Worth Rises, a New York-based organization with a track record in advocating successfully against the prison industrial complex, has analyzed Massachusetts data. The organization estimates that families in the state now pay about $24 million a year for phone calls with their loved ones. Nearly $7 million of that sum are “site commissions” that get funneled back to the prisons — a tremendously regressive tax that forces vulnerable families to help pay for incarceration.

While the burden on families is tremendous, eliminating it would not be expensive. If Massachusetts negotiated rates with prison telephone companies similar to those adopted in New York, Rhode Island and Illinois — which range from 3 to 7 cents a minute, depending on the size of the facility — we could provide telephone service at a fraction of the cost now paid. Flat-rate contracts would yield even greater savings.

There is a path forward to fix this in Massachusetts. A bill sponsored by Sen. William Brownsberger, S.1372 “An Act Relative To Inmate Telephone Calls,” would allow prison families to connect at no charge, with the goal of supporting healthy communities and fostering the connections that help prisoners succeed when they return home. The legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security will soon vote on whether to move the bill forward.

The relatively small investment we make will yield incalculable benefits to vulnerable families, especially the children of prisoners, whose only way to feel their parents’ love is often through the phone. Across the country, some 8% percent of children have experienced the incarceration of a parent. More than 3% percent of children nationally have a parent in prison right now -- and it’s a staggering current reality for one in nine African American children. According to a 2016 report, in Massachusetts some 69,000 children or 5% of our kids, suffer this fate.

[Site commissions are] a tremendously regressive tax that forces vulnerable families to help pay for incarceration.

Decades of studies show tight correlation between strong family ties during incarceration and reduced recidivism rates. The Minnesota Department of Corrections, for example, found that people who received visitors while in prison have a five-year recidivism rate that's 25% percent lower than those who don’t.

Incarcerated people face tremendous challenges on release from prison: finding a home, finding a job, re-establishing relationships with family and friends — these things are hard enough. The telephone is not a luxury but a necessity in that effort. Some 97% of people in prison will return to our communities, and the latest available data in Massachusetts shows a three-year recidivism rate of 32%. We cannot neglect any tool that can bring this number down.

The telephone is a lifeline for prison families, who are overwhelmingly low income and largely come from communities of color, far from the rural areas where most prisons are located. Without a car, visiting is often impossible and for too many, the telephone is their only link to a loved one in jail. Prisoners need a voice from the outside world to help them maintain their humanity in a brutal environment.

We hope that members of the Public Safety Committee vote to move S. 1372 forward, an essential step towards eventual passage.  No child should miss out on the love and support of an incarcerated parent because it’s too expensive to talk.

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Related:

Bonita Tenneriello Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Bonita Tenneriello is a staff attorney with Prisoners Legal Services of Massachusetts. She has litigated numerous cases on solitary confinement practices.

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Elizabeth Matos Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Elizabeth Matos is the executive director of Prisoners' Legal Services of Massachusetts.

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