Of Many Things

Out of town and alone, you want to call home but the only phone available requires collect calls and your family can’t afford the chargesa temporary problem for many, but one that could last for years if you are behind bars. Telephones represent a lifeline between prisoners and their families, and studies have found that maintaining strong bonds helps to reduce recidivism once prisoners are released. Many families live too far from the facilities where their loved ones are held to make frequent visiting possible. Telephone contact represents an important alternative.

The problem is that for prisoners’ families, these calls cost far more than what you and I would pay. In most jails and prisons, inmates can only call collect; there is also a hefty surcharge that greatly increases the fee. Proceeds from the surcharge go partly to the state in which the facility is located, and partly to the phone service providerslike Sprint, M.C.I. and AT&Twith whom a state contracts. Both providers and states profit handsomely, reaping millions every year. Most prisoners’ families are poor, however, so that in a sense, theyand not just the prisonersare also being punished.

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The injustice of the situation has spurred a grass-roots movement called eTc: Equitable Telephone Charges. Heading the nationwide campaign is Kay Perry ([email protected]), coordinator of the Michigan chapter of CURE, a prison-reform group. Discussing the campaign in a recent conversation, Ms. Perry emphasized the suffering of families who have to discontinue telephone contact with their relatives behind bars because of the cost, and the resultant feelings of guilt on both sides. One prisoner wrote me saying he could no longer call home because he knew that his elderly father couldn’t pay the bill, she said.

The hardship has not gone unnoticed by the American Correctional Association. At its January 1999 winter conference, it reaffirmed an earlier resolution stating that correctional agencies should discourage profiteering on tariffs placed on calls which are far in excess of the actual cost of the call. And profiteering is what this is about.

Ms. Perry described the results of the campaign as both encouraging and frustrating. On the encouragement side, there have been some signs of progress. Last fall, for example, Indiana entered into a new contract that cut almost in half the state department of corrections’ commissions, which in effect means substantial savings to family members, and that of course is what we’re after. She added that the Indiana state legislature is also considering a bill that would restrict the amount of commissions that county jails could garner from prisoner-initiated callsan important matter for those awaiting trial, because some attorneys will not accept collect calls because of the high charges.

Ms. Perry observed that the most progress has been made in those states whose legislators have shown interest in making changes that would lessen the burden on families. State legislators are key players in solving the problem, she noted. As a result, campaign plans for a number of states include focusing on the legislators to help them understand the critical role they play, either through proposing legislation or in pressing the departments of corrections to alter their contracts when they come up for renewal. Another goal of the campaign is to persuade more correctional systems to allow debit calling: a prison commissary could sell debit cardslike the phone cards commonly availableor friends and relatives could deposit money into prisoners’ accounts. This would make it possible for them to dial numbers directly and bypass collect-call charges.

When the eTc program was in its planning stages in 1999, Ms. Perry and her co-workers contacted the U.S. bishops, who expressed strong support of the effort. They were generous in providing us with the initial seed money we needed to design the campaign materials and start our mailings, which began in 2000, she said. Making it easier for prisoners to stay in touch with their families implicitly promotes family unitya primary focus of Catholic social teaching.

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