THE BLOG
01/08/2014 08:42 am ET Updated Mar 10, 2014

A Tale of Two Prisoners

Meet Prisoner A: Incarcerated at Soledad Prison in California for a botched armed robbery committed in the thrall of an expensive drug addiction, Prisoner A is 3 years into a 10-year sentence. Committed to rehab and clean and sober for two years, A tries to keep in regular touch by telephone with two people: the aunt who raised him from a toddler in Oakland, CA and his 8-year old son, who has relocated with his ex-wife and her new husband to Oregon.

Calling his aunt, thanks to 2008 CA legislation, is free of commissions (often called kickbacks). A monthly 15-minute call to keep in touch is affordable, even for a financially-challenged senior, at a price of about $7 per call.

Calling his kid in Oregon? Until this year, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) moved to cap prison interstate calling rates and get rid of commissions, the cost for that same 15-minute phone call was $18, causing the boy's mother to pull the plug on calls more than once a month between father and son.

Why did a phone call out of the same prison cost twice as much?

Just wait for Prisoner B.

Prisoner B is a 15-year-old incarcerated in Solano County's Juvenile Detention Center in Fairfield, CA. His family lives nearby in Vallejo, CA, but has been financially struggling since his father was laid off from a full-time job and has since only.been able to find part-time work. His mother earns low wages in a retail job and there are 3 younger siblings.

Because the county juvenile facility B is locked up in isn't included in California's legislation, the telephone provider charges a a 72% commission on all phone calls giving $600,000 a year back to Solano County that is extracted from prisoner families. But in B's case, his family pulled the plug due to financial exigency, stopped taking his calls, and he's had no contact with them since their last visit 4 months ago.

You don't have to be a professional sociologist to make a guess about whose post-prison life looks more promising: prisoner A who is retaining ties to loved ones or prisoner B who feels abandoned and cut off from a family riven with financial stress.

Every study confirms that guess. Prisoners who retain steady contact with family and friends while in prison have a dramatically lower recidvism rate. A better outcome for individuals and a better outcome for taxpayers.

That's why the California State Legislature took action to reduce predatory kickbacks at state-run prison facilities by 2011. That's why the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took action to reduce interstate calling rates. There's a nationwide consensus that putting the welfare of prisoners and prisoner families ahead of profit is the right thing to do.

The crazy quilt of differing county and state legislation, which is what accounts for B's predicament, needs to become a thing of the past.

There's no difference between prisoners in federal prisons, those in state prisons and the occupants of local juvenile facilities, county jails, and immigration detention centers. In fact, the people most victimized by these insane commission rates are, in most cases, charged with less grave crimes and incarcerated for briefer periods of time.

In my state, California, this double standard is the rule, and it's not the only one. If local sheriffs departments are balancing their budgets on the back of the families of juvenile offenders, they need to come up with another funding model.

Prisoner families are often a stressed out and disorganized constituency. That is no surprise. So it's up to all of us to peek under the curtain at the county we live in and see how many hundreds of thousands of dollars are being taken in as kickbacks. If you're living in a county with 30%, 40%, 50%, 60% commissions, talk to the local newspaper and the local TV station and ask why we are colluding in the loss of contact between troubled kids and their families.

As a first step, go to the National Campaign for Prison Phone Justice website and see if there's a local group in your state working to halt predatory prison phone rates.

Sometimes the ability to connect can save a life.