There are roughly 2.7 million children with one or more parents in the incarceration system in the U.S. today. As a result of this, these children are more likely to experience poverty and unstable housing as a result of the lost income to their household. Apart from the financial toll that incarceration brings to families, comes the emotional impact that comes from being separated from a loved one. Childhood development and rehabilitation experts maintain that the regular contact between family members and their imprisoned loved ones is essential for the well being of everyone involved. Studies also show that regular communication between inmates and their support system can also help reduce the likelihood that they will return to prison.
Unfortunately, maintaining regular contact is challenging for many reasons. Many prisoners are sent out of state, making travel expensive and placing visitation out of reach for families struggling to make ends meat. Over half of inmates who are prisoners report never having received a visit from their children. Writing and reading a letter is not always an option for a young child. These factors place a heavy importance on phone calls as a means of communication for families.
As it stands today, the phone system within state prisons and immigration detention centers exploits one of the most vulnerable populations in the U.S. today. Over half of incarcerated men and 75 percent of women are fathers and mothers of one or more children under the age of 18. According to the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, 90 percent of male offenders had an income below $25,000, and 69 percent had an income below poverty level at the time of their arrest.
The high costs of phone calls to and from state prisons make it increasingly difficult for families and prisoners to maintain contact. These high costs are the result of a commission system, where state prisons negotiate a contract for services with prison phone companies. After a company is selected, a percentage of the profits, or commission, is then returned back to the state, creating as high as 65 percent gross revenue for the state prison administrators. There are currently eight states that have banned this practice, including New York, California, New Mexico, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Nebraska, Michigan and Missouri.
For states that continue to accept commissions, there is an incentive to select the prison phone contract that charges the highest phone rates, yielding the highest profits. Unlike long distance rates in the public, interstate phone rates within state prisons are currently not regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. Apart from the lack of regulation, there is also a lack of competition. Once a contract is awarded to a company through a bidding process, they become the sole gatekeeper between prisoners and the outside world. The rates that phone companies subject families and legal counsel to are decided within this bidding process and vary from state to state. These rates are astronomical in comparison to what families outside of the incarceration system pay for phone services.
It is often times cheaper for a person to call overseas than to call a loved one in prison. It can cost an average of $18 for a 15-minute call to some states, leaving families with a monthly expense of over $280 for just one hour of conversation a week. While debit call options are often slightly less expensive, companies often include extra fees such as charging customers to add money into accounts or statement billing fees, making calls more expensive. Although collect calls are often higher, the low wages that are earned behind bars is not enough to cover the cost of calls. This system places the expense the shoulders of innocent families who cannot always afford to accept the charges.
People like Martha Wright, a grandmother of an inmate living in Washington, D.C. Wright is one of the few remaining family members of her grandson and his link to the outside world. Nearing her nineties, there have been times when Wright has to choose between paying for medical needs or groceries and speaking to her grandson. It was on her behalf that pro-bono counsel filed a petition with the FCC that calls for the FCC cap interstate phone rates between state prisons, essentially placing a limit on what companies can charge. This petition has been pending at the FCC since 2003, and has yet to be ruled on.
Sadly, Wright is not alone in her experience. Recently, the FCC has received hundreds of letters from prisoners and their families asking for action. These letters were a result of a call for stories from Prison Legal News and the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice. These heartbreaking letters include stories from prisoners of lost contact with family members and friends over time due to the inability to pay for calls. Mothers write about the difficulty of maintaining relationships with father figures in their children's lives. The letters and phone calls plead for FCC Chairman Genachowski to rule on the Wright Petition and provide relief for the families and friends of inmates.
These campaign efforts have recently been joined by Participant Media, a production company that will be releasing the Sundance Award winning Film "Middle of Nowhere" in theaters next month. The film tells the story of a woman struggling to maintain a relationship with her boyfriend serving an eight-year prison sentence. Filmmakers ask for that the public join in taking action and urging the FCC to rule on the Wright petition.
Aiding in this call to action is a coalition of Washington, D.C.-based civil rights, media reform groups and consumer advocacy organizations have come together to advocate for long overdue action on the Wright petition on behalf of families.
Reformed states have shown that is its possible for these state prisons to continue operating without accepting commissions from prison phone companies. States should no longer continue to place short-term profits over the long-term harms of burdening families with high costs. The time to end the exploitation of families is now. A child with a parent behind bars deserves to hear their voice.
Supporting the film and signing the petition is one of the many ways to get involved. You can also ask your representation in Congress to urge the FCC to take action, share your prison phone story with the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, and encourage others to do the same.
This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.
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