Op-Ed: Why phone calls from prison should be free

Angel Rice’s second job is unpaid and the hours suck. They begin at 6 a.m. as she searches her phone for messages that have come in overnight from women struggling to support a family member who is being held in a California state penitentiary.

Nothing they can ask would surprise Rice, whose own husband is incarcerated in Imperial County, 150 miles from their Rancho Cucamonga home. But regularly, her questions boil down to the stress of paying to stay connected with a loved one inside. “I go into debt to keep my kids connected to their father,” you might say. “But I have to keep my family connected. What should I do?”

It’s a dilemma that led Rice and Abby Salim, whose husband is incarcerated in Marin County, to start Empowering Women Impacted by Incarceration – an all-volunteer network of thousands of California women fighting to support one another’s incarcerated loved ones help. And that’s why the group, along with other organizations of its kind, is working to urge Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign the Keep Families Connected Act, Senate Bill 1008, written by Senator Josh Becker (D-Menlo Park). .

The bill would make all jail phone calls free. When Newsom wants to relieve some of the most vulnerable families in our state, it’s hard to imagine legislation that would make a bigger impact at a lower cost.

Currently, if Rice wants to communicate with her husband, she pays a premium charged only to those who communicate with people in jails, jails, and juvenile detention centers. To receive incarcerated people’s calls, you must set up an account with a debit or credit card, a tedious process in itself that is not available to all families with a loved one who is incarcerated. Once an account is set up, charges apply when a call comes in. (You cannot call for jail or other lockdowns.)

At Rice, the cost is $3 for each 15-minute video call; about $20 a week for sending email (5 cents to send and 5 cents to receive); 37 cents for a 15-minute audio-only call (jail calls cut off after 15 minutes).

How about a personal visit? Rice spends $100 on a tank of gas to drive to Imperial County. Then it’s over $70 for a hotel room and around $40 for food for her husband and children during the visit. (She also spends about $500 every three months on packaged meals provided by the prisons.) And then there are unexpected expenses, like the time her car broke down while driving in the middle of the desert.

The expenses add up. They partly explain why 1 in 3 families with an incarcerated loved one is in debt, an average of $13,000, according to a study by the Ella Baker Center. One in four women and two in five black women are related to someone incarcerated.

“Our husbands or fathers are incarcerated, so right now we’re the breadwinner,” Rice said. “We’re bearing all of these costs right now.”

The government can’t regulate the cost of an overnight stay in Imperial County or keep old cars from breaking down, but it can ensure that prison communications costs are fair.

The prison telecommunications industry is a monopoly dominated by three companies. It’s worth $1.4 billion, and yes, it also brings in revenue for the state and local coffers, but at what cost? Research shows that the more inmates who stay in contact with their families, the better off they will be when they are released. So why make it harder for that to happen?

There is momentum for reform in California. All calls from San Francisco jails are now free. The San Francisco Sheriff testified in support of SB 1008, saying the move to free calling was easy to implement and had a “calming effect on the prison environment.” Calls from San Diego jails are also free. And the California Public Utilities Commission has at least capped the maximum rate prison facilities and communications companies can charge 7 cents a minute for calls. (The statewide average before the cap was 31 cents per minute.) The state prison system has also made some free calls during the pandemic, but that program is expected expire.

Some might think that 37 cents for a call from a loved one in prison isn’t a big deal. But Rice knows better, and she hears all the time from women who don’t answer the phone when their incarcerated son or father is on the line because they can’t afford the fee — it’s a harrowing decision.

And when it’s time to fire someone, the whole system makes it all but impossible for them to call around to secure a job or an apartment before they’re out again.

Implementing SB 1008 would cost the state an estimated $12 million a year — real money, but only about 0.1% of California’s $14 billion prison budget.

More needs to be done to right all the wrongs of the many partnerships between prisons and corporations that monetize the distressed mothers, wives and grandmothers of inmates. But Newsom’s signing of the Keep Families Connected Act is a start.

In the meantime, Rice will continue to check her phone for messages from families on the Empowering Women network. Many nights she phoned them until after midnight. “Everyone is looking for help,” she says, “and they don’t know where to get it.”

Anne Stuhldreher directs the Financial Justice Project at the San Francisco IRS and is a Fellow in the Aspen Institute’s Financial Security Program. Op-Ed: Why phone calls from prison should be free

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