Importance of ongoing contact for prisoners

Importance of ongoing contact for prisoners
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With in-person visits suspended in public prisons and jails due to COVID-19, the incarcerated population and their families must rely on often-prohibitively expensive phone calls, video-visitation and emails for information about loved ones — or face the specter of not knowing. In this pandemic, it is urgent that phone and communication policies are adopted that allow incarcerated men and women to contact their families by phone, video or email without charge. The recently passed CARES act is a first step as it makes phone calls free in federal facilities for the duration of the emergency. But it does not cover the 90 percent of this country’s incarcerated population who are housed in state prisons and county jails. 

Family members are desperate for news of their incarcerated relatives. And they have good reason to worry.

They know that their incarcerated sons, mothers, fathers and siblings are living in conditions that, like an aircraft carrier or a cruise ship, can vastly accelerate the spread of viral disease. Dorms in prisons have bunk beds and lockers that sit cheek by jowl. Jail holding pens and cells house people in close proximity. One cell in the Palm Beach County Jail houses 64 inmates. The constant handwashing urged on the public may be impossible in carceral settings where sinks are often broken, hand sanitizer is unavailable, soap is scarce and medical capacity is severely limited even in normal circumstances.   

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Incarcerated individuals, many of whose family members live in dense, urban housing, may also be more concerned than ever. Men and women in prison view the frightening news of rising disease and death rates in real time via televisions located in the rec rooms, in the blocks, in the yard and often in individual cells.

In these months, not knowing about loved ones can create enormous anxiety and depression. Not many problems that have erupted with COVID-19 have a ready solution, but this one does: the problem of “not knowing” can be mitigated. 

In state prisons and county jails, the solution rests in the hands of private equity firms that own the telecommunications service companies in prisons as well as with the state and county prison systems that have negotiated exclusive contracts with these companies to provide these services since the 1990s. Two private equity-owned companies dominate the telecommunications contracts for prisons: Global Tel-Link (owned by American Securities) and Securus (owned by Platinum Equity). They control about 70 percent of the prison market even as each has changed private equity ownership hands twice since 2009. 

The families of prisoners pay disproportionately high charges for communication via telephone, video visitation or email because of the exclusive contracts that these private equity owned companies have with prisons, giving them near-monopoly power to charge what they want. Their public partners (the jail/prison) also receive sizable commissions in exchange for providing access to these markets. Even a single county can accrue a million dollars a year in commissions for providing a company access to its jail population. Families spend, as one study of New York State prisons documented, an average of $175 a month for phone calls and other ‘amenities.’ Those costs are likely to skyrocket in the current crisis, which is expected to last for months.

Bearing the costs of keeping in touch with loved ones in jails and prisons has always been onerous for their families. Now, in the face of the pandemic, it is inestimably more difficult. Job furloughs of incarcerated workers in jails and prisons have proliferated as prison industry and programs shut down and the prisoner-work force are put on “holiday” pay, which means many will earn 16 rather than the usual 32 cents an hour. Many family members of incarcerated people, moreover, have already suffered layoffs, and more are sure to come. If the economic burden was high before, it may now be unsupportable for many individuals and families.

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So, what can be done? Some states have taken initial steps that others should emulate. New York City telephone calls have been free for the incarcerated in city jails since May of 2019, well before the outbreak of the pandemic. However, in the last weeks, other state and local authorities have negotiated with service companies to ease up on phone and telecommunication charges — at least nominally and temporarily.     

For example, at the time of this writing, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) — with Securus — has instituted five free 15-minute phone calls a week, five free emails, 12 one ounce first class letters a week and free television service in prisoner cells. New York DOCCS — also with Securus — now provides for two free 30-minute phone calls a week, two free weekly electronic messages via tablets, and five free postage stamps.

Outside of the Northeast, Utah DOC and Century Link now allow 10 free phone calls a week with each call limited to 15 minutes. California DOC and Global Tel-Link have offered the adult incarcerated population three days of free phone calls each week through the end of April. Shelby County, Tenn., jail — with employee-owned NCIC — now allows (unlimited) free phone calls up to 15 minutes.

These measures, some very limited, may be at once “acts of compassion” and at the same time “smart” — indeed rapacious — business practices. An incarcerated individual in Davies County, Kentucky, for instance, frantic to hear the voices of family members, might end up staying on the phone a few minutes longer than the allotted fifteen minutes, incurring an additional $5.61 for any portion of the next 15 minutes. An Oklahoma caller from prison stands to be charged over twenty cents for each minute plus a per charge fee of between $1.19 to $4.75 above the allotted two free weekly five minute calls.

Providing free telephone calls during this crisis is not a solution to over-incarceration, to exploitative vendor (including phone call) practices, and to many of the ills of today’s jails and prisons. But it is a partial solution to the problem of “not knowing.” And for that reason, action towards enabling the phone, video and electronic connection between incarcerated individuals and their loved ones is imperative. Right now. 

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct the provider for Pennsylvania DOC and to update New York State's free phone offerings.

Mary Fainsod Katzenstein is Stephen and Evalyn Milman Professor of American Studies at Cornell University, Emerita. Rose Batt is the Alice Hanson Cook Professor of Women and Work at Cornell University’s ILR School.