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Elain Ellerbe | August 13, 2018
According to Prison Policy Initiative, on July 18, 2018, the New York City Council passed legislation that requires the city to provide telephone services free of charge to individuals in the custody by the Department of Corrections saving their families nearly $8 million per year. The new law also prohibits the City or DOC from receiving or retaining any revenue for providing the phone services. Past revenues have been in the $5 million range. Prison Policy Initiative also estimates that all across the country, phone calls from offenders to their families can run as high as a $1.00 a minute yet, there are states – such as Nebraska – and municipalities that are refusing to take commissions to negotiate the cost of the calls down to as low as one cent a minute.
Phone access for prisoners is big business, bringing in millions in revenue each year for prisons and other law enforcement entities. In 2015, the Times-Picayune reported that in Louisiana, commission payments amounted to roughly $4.9 million for the state’s Department of Corrections, and another $6 million for sheriff’s offices and parish governments. The newspaper also published an interactive map on their website that can identify the amount any parish in the state is taking in for fees related to prison calls as well as the total amount for phone calls made by the families. In Orleans Parish, in 2015, the Orleans Sheriff’s office took in $1.2 million in fees (86 percent commission) and families of offenders paid out $1.7 million. East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s office received $983,000 (65.2 percent commission) and families paid out $1.5 million.
While the 2015 figures are the most recent calculated, a 2017 article in the Times-Picayune clearly shows that the costs of phone calls in prisons still remain high. A family of an offender in Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola reported they were paying anywhere from $260 to $450 a month to allow the incarcerated father to talk with each of his kids. Given the distance from Angola to where the family lives in New Orleans, face-to-face visits are very few so the phone calls are the only way to keep the family connected. According to the Florida-based nonprofit Human Rights Defense Center’s Prison Phone Justice campaign, Louisiana is ranked 39th for inmate call affordability. The organization calculated the cost of an average 15-minute call to prison systems in all 50 states and the federal prison system as well. The high costs of keeping in touch with family and friends while in prison is problematic for a variety of reasons. Research clearly indicates that familial contact not only lessens the trauma children experience in losing a parent to incarceration, but also motivates the incarcerated parent to modify their behavior and gives them hope of reunifying with their spouse and children upon release. According to an article published in the Prison Legal News, which cites a number of studies on the pro-social aspects of incarcerated individuals staying in communication with their families, maintaining family connections during incarceration is a clear indicator for lower recidivism rates. Many families are forced to make difficult decisions to lessen their interactions with those behind bars in order to pay for food, rent, clothing, etc. This is not good policy and does not make us safer.
New York City’s actions to make phone calls free to the incarcerated population is a major stride towards helping families stay connected. Additionally, New York State has joined the ranks of other states, such as New Jersey, Virginia, and Pennsylvania that have worked to lower prison phone calls to well below a $1.00 a minute and without taking commissions on these calls. Most people behind bars will be released at some point. We need to make sure they don’t come back to prison and keeping a strong network of friends and family is critical to this. Let’s not forget the children that lose that bond with a mother or father. Louisiana policymakers need to look into this issue and address it sooner rather than later.