Rosenblum: Long overdue, the pressure is on for prison phone justice

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 6, 2014 - 12:50 PM

Can regular phone calls make society safer? In fact, they can.

For years, families with loved ones in prison have known this. But they’ve faced a punitive telephone system, in Minnesota and nationwide, that makes nurturing those precious lifelines difficult, if not impossible.

That’s because correctional facilities generally enter into exclusive contracts with phone service providers, with commissions (some call them kickbacks) to prisons that reach as high as 60 percent. One recent report showed that commissions bring $143 million annually into state prison systems.

The Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) contracts with Global Tel Link, which in the past has given DOC as much as a 49 percent commission on prison phone calls, according to Prison Legal News, a monthly magazine devoted to prison-related issues.

That commission generates $1.44 million annually in revenue, according to their findings.

The burden of that bounty is carried by families, who have paid as much as $17 for a 15-minute collect phone call. A weekly one-hour phone call can translate into $250 a month, forcing some families into having to choose between staying connected or buying groceries.

“They’ve got the monopoly, so they charge whatever they want,” said one Minnesota mother, struggling to stay in touch with her imprisoned son. “We ran our bill up until they cut us off.”

Her struggle, and that of thousands of other families, is finally being heard. In mid-February, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) responded to “unreasonably high phone bills for inmates’ families” by setting caps on all calls, whether collect or debit.

The FCC emphasized that security measures will not be compromised and noted that states that have already adopted reforms are seeing call-volume increases that can offset much of the drop in fees.

The push now is to use the federal changes as a model for states to make similar reforms. On Wednesday at the State Capitol, supporters of prison phone reform spent the day talking with legislators about their concerns and hopes.

“It’s been a very exciting day as we build upon the momentum set by the FCC,” said Artika Tyner, a clinical law professor at the University of St. Thomas and a leader in the phone reform effort.

DOC spokeswoman Sarah Latuseck said her department “is very aware of the importance of family contacts,” and has already cut its rate structure based on the FCC ruling. The new rate for local calls using a debit system, she noted, is 35 cents per call, with no surcharge. Collect calls still carry a $3 surcharge, and remain more costly per minute, ranging from 23 cents to $1.05 for the first minute.

Tyner is glad to hear that DOC is responding, but she remains concerned.

“With debit cards, you’re assuming that I have a debit or credit card,” Tyner said. “Coupled with that, there are associated fees with setting up the debit card system, and issues related to call quality. We’ve heard about poor connections and dropped calls, and arbitrary blocking of numbers.

“I respect that they’re trying to make a difference, but there are still unseen barriers.”

Phone reform has been building slowly since Martha Wright, an 87-year-old grandmother in Washington, D.C., brought the issue into the open about 10 years ago. Wright spent nearly $1,000 a year on her fixed income to stay in touch with her grandson so that he would not feel abandoned.

Still, Tyner knows that most people have little sympathy. Expensive phone calls? “Just another consequence of being an offender,” she said.

But there are many reasons to care. First, the fallout of exorbitant charges is harshest on children. More than 15,000 Minnesota children have at least one incarcerated parent, as do 2.7 million children across the country.

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