Call an end to prison phone price gouging

It’s time to hang-up the practice of preying on friends and
families of California inmates who pay exorbitantly high rates when
their loved ones call collect from jail.
It’s time to hang-up the practice of preying on friends and families of California inmates who pay exorbitantly high rates when their loved ones call collect from jail.

The Associated Press report that collect calls from special phone lines for inmates in California jails collected approximately $120 million each year on telephone calls costing double or more than the standard rate should cause alarm.

The AP reported California counties have made hundreds of millions of dollars from some of the state’s poorest residents because unregulated phone rates in our prisons often charge twice or more than the normal going rate for collect calls.

Not only is it unfair to charge higher rates to calls coming from the numerous California prisons, it’s ridiculous that these charges are passed on to the friends and families of convicts doing their time.

In Hollister, one woman accrued $270 in charges for speaking with her incarcerated son for just a few minutes each day during his 5-month prison term. In fact, the average inmate in San Benito County’s jail made $585 worth of collect calls last year totaling $62,631. In the last five years, counties throughout the state have collectively raised $303 million.

The practice punishes the innocent friends and families of inmates, who are stuck with the bill when they try to support the inmates during a time they need it the most.

In San Benito County, Sheriff Curtis Hill said the revenue, approximately half of the total take, is spent on inmate programs like buying recreational materials and drug and alcohol classes, but he also said it is probable other counties use the revenue to pad their overall budgets.

Obviously, inmates should not be allowed to make free calls on the taxpayers’ dime, but to make their families pay more than an average citizen simply because they have no other alternative is unconscionable.

How can we expect our inmates to make meaningful reforms when the state itself allows their families to be robbed by expensive call costs from phone companies growing fat off the bloated charges?

Many of the counties, like San Benito, sign their contracts without even knowing what the rate is. When the Free Lance questioned how much San Benito County inmates paid per minute neither the jail or the phone company, Alabama-based Global Tel Link, could or would provide an answer. That’s frightening, especially considering the AP reports many of these phone companies offer counties signing bonuses to secure the lucrative contracts. In Los Angeles County, the AP reports, the signing bonus was nearly $17 million.

The phone companies say their costs are justified because the systems are more complex and offer special features such as the ability to digitally record conversations. But is it really double or more the cost outside of prison? We seriously doubt that.

There is much more at risk here than just a few million dollars. Prison is designed to reform criminals who choose to break the law, however, an important element of their reformation is the knowledge that a better life exists outside the prison walls.

Telephone conversations with loved ones are an integral part of an inmates support system and exploiting that contact is despicable.

The families and friends of prison inmates cannot be treated as cash cows for the state’s prisons and greedy companies. The system needs to be regulated with a uniform rate somehow. Perhaps, our district attorney could lead the charge in a class action lawsuit and encourage other counties to get on board.

Although a five-year contract was signed in May, San Benito County Supervisors should see if there is a way to lower the charges or, failing that, promise to make changes in the contract the next time it comes around. Whatever the case, the cruel price gouging of prison inmates and, more importantly, their innocent families needs to stop.

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