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by Dr. Boyce Watkins
This week in an article in the Chicago Sun-Times, Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke to the mass incarceration epidemic that is harming families all across America. Millions of children grow up in psychological turmoil because the head of household has been sent to prison for dozens of years, in many cases due to non-violent, drug-related offenses. Not only does this process serve to create more criminals (which happens to many children who grow up with a missing and incarcerated parent), it also leads to corporations using the families of incarcerated Americans are a way to fuel their bottom lines.
One of these forms of exploitation that Rev. Jackson notes is the high cost of making a phone call in the Cook County Jail.
Tuesday is In Cook County jails, prisoners are charged as much as $15 a call to be in touch with their relatives. The exploitive rates can force families — already struggling with the burdens of having a loved one locked up — to choose between supporting their loved one or paying for heat or food. An Illinois study found that the price of phone calls from prison was one of the two most significant barriers to family contact during incarceration.
Since when should it ever cost anyone $15 to make a phone call? I make calls from my cell phone for pennies, and even I would have trouble paying such a high rate at my own income level. If most of us would struggle with this cost, why would we expect a poor family to be able to pay the price? Even if you care nothing for the inmates themselves, should the children and relatives of this person be forced to give up nearly everything just to speak to the person they love?
Rev. Jackson gives insights into why he believes that inmates’ families are attacked with this horrible financial burden:
Why are the most captive and vulnerable being charged such brutal rates for a phone call? Because they can be. They have no choice in provider. The prison system cuts a deal with a telephone company that pays the state a “commission” — what the New York Times calls a “legalized kickback” — that ranges from 15 to 60 percent of the revenue. Thus, as a report by the Prison Policy Initiative details, state prison systems have no incentive to select the company with the lowest rates. Instead, the correctional departments gain the most by selecting the company that provides the highest commissions.
The result makes prison-telephone use a cash cow for the phone companies — and a brutal exploitation of the families of prisoners who pay the charges. Not surprisingly, over the past few years, three corporations have come to monopolize the service of 90 percent of all incarcerated persons, making it even easier to control rates.
Rev. Jackson continues to make a very good case regarding why we should reconsider these legalized kickbacks and see them for what they really are: A serious form of economic corruption that leans on the tendency of our society to care nothing for poor, black and brown families. The mentality for many is that if you are arrested for a crime, you deserve no legal rights or human rights, even for a petty offense. We also seem to forget that people of color are arrested and incarcerated more regularly than whites, even when they commit the same crimes. Also, in states like Illinois, patterns of police torture have been consistently unearthed, showing that many of the individuals in prison didn’t do anything at all.
Rev. Jackson states that such policies actually increase the rate of recidivism, making our society more dangerous for all of us:
These outrageous rates make it harder for prisoners and their families to stay in touch. Yet studies show that family contact and support is directly related to the success of a prisoner after release. As the Prison Policy Initiative reports, the 2012 Republican Party Platform endorses “family friendly policies . . . [to] reduce the rate of recidivism, thus reducing the enormous fiscal and social costs of incarceration.” The 2012 Democratic Party Platform also supports initiatives to reduce recidivism. A sensible step would be to lower prison telephone rates.
According to Rev. Jackson, rates for prison phone calls vary throughout the nation. In some states, the rates are as low as five cents per minute. In others, they can be as high as $17 per minute. What’s made abundantly clear is that there are ways to manage the expensive kickback corruption to ensure that the punishment fits the crime. Torturing the families of inmates should not be part of the incarceration package in America.
Rep. Bobby Rush from Illinois and Rep. Henry Waxman from California are asking that the FCC act on this matter (I encourage you to consider supporting them). It is also imperative that our nation revisit the devastating impact that the failed War on Drugs has had on our society. America cannot succeed by incarcerating such a large percentage of the population for minor, non-violent crimes and then decimating the families of the convicted. It’s not good policy and it is up to our political leadership to address the issue in a fair and ethical way.