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.

Most incarcerated parents nationally are placed in facilities more than 100 miles from home, making regular face-to-face contact difficult. And that leads many children into truancy, depression and aggression.

“Children are the silent victims,” said Teri Schmitz, a former social worker who is now a second-year St. Thomas law student. She has spent the past few months working with Tyner’s Community Justice Project, a legal clinic introducing budding lawyers to social justice efforts.

Public defenders, as well as criminal defense and immigration attorneys, are also strained. Many report that they limit the number of collect calls they will accept from indigent clients.

It’s important to remember that most of these clients are getting out of prison at some point. And well-documented studies show that prisoners who remain connected to loved ones on the outside have the best chance of success in work, relationships and staying out of trouble. It behooves us to have pre-established support systems in place for them.

That begins with regular and affordable access to that lifeline called the telephone.

“You just can’t let somebody go through it alone,” said Sue Ellis of St. Charles, Minn., whose son is a client in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. “They need to be able to talk to somebody, to vent.”

“You have to have that connection,” agrees Jason Sole, 35, a felon turned consultant and author now finishing his doctoral dissertation about criminal justice.

Sole’s mother could only accept his collect calls “once in a while.” And he still is pained at not being able to call his brother for his eighth-grade graduation. “People were excited to hear from me at first, but the rates were so excessive that it became, ‘I love you, I can’t wait for you to get out, but we need to start writing,’ ” Sole said.

“But I wanted a connection. I wanted to hear their voices.”

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

612-673-7350

Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum

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