Inmates' families hammered by high phone charges

For people with family members in prison, what may seem a small thing can have a big impact.

Onnie Kennedy, a disabled widow living on social security, had to choose constantly between her heart and her pocketbook. While her son was in a Virginia prison for five years, she had to give up some basic needs so she could accept his phone calls. Every time they talked, she paid the higher cost of a collect call, plus a surcharge of $3.50.

"It was a hardship, but I couldn't say 'no' to his calls because I knew how much it meant," she says. "You don't know who you can trust in there, and when he had a problem, I'd get two or three calls a week."

Like thousands of families of prisoners across the country, Mrs. Kennedy often had steep phone bills, the result of what some call an indirect "tax" on those often least able to afford it.

Now families and friends of inmates are mounting a national effort - the eTc Campaign to promote Equitable Telephone Charges - to try to end the practice. They are calling on state legislatures to eliminate the surcharges and allow prisoners to make direct calls (less expensive than collect) using a prepaid debit account.

While the Federal Bureau of Prisons and two states - Tennessee and Colorado - already allow debit calling, many states see little reason to modify the system. Those charges put millions into state coffers, through commissions received from the phone companies. New York, for example, gets $21 million annually.

"Inmate telephone systems should not be compared to residential phone service," says Larry Traylor, director of communications in Virginia's Department of Corrections. "The income helps offset the cost of the system.... All inmate calls are recorded and require correctional staff to monitor the conversations and facilitate phone use." It also supports a hotline allowing crime victims to check on the status of offenders in the prisons, he says.

Supporter of eTc say that it isn't fair to target this population to pay such costs - that all citizens should contribute - and that it discourages family contacts crucial to getting an inmate back on track.

Kay Perry, national coordinator of the campaign and head of the Michigan chapter of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), says many family members end up having their phones disconnected and lose touch. "Studies show that a prisoner with a social support system is much more likely to do better when he or she leaves the system," she adds. "That network is being destroyed by a public policy which we think is not very bright."

In most states, inmate calls must be collect and can only last for a limited time (usually 15 minutes). If they haven't finished their discussion, they have to call again and pay another surcharge. A debit account, to which the prisoner or the family could contribute, would lower overall charges. "You would think the phone companies would love this because there is no bad debt," Ms. Perry points out.

"But the states don't want to give up that commission," she adds. "In Michigan, they get 40 percent of the profits from the phone company - $12.5 million. In New York, they get 60 percent."

CURE's Virginia chapter has gotten the surcharge reduced to $2.25. But Mr. Traylor doesn't see debit calling ahead: "Although free of bad debt, it still requires the same level of administration," he says.

Each month through August, CURE and 12 other groups will carry out mail-in events to state officials nationwide. A Michigan pilot project sparked two bills in the legislature, and they've heard from interested lawmakers in seven other states, Perry says. Others are also active on the issue. Lawsuits are under way in some states. And the American Correctional Association has discouraged "profiteering on tariffs placed on phone calls." The ACA may discuss a policy on this issue at its summer congress.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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