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  October 13, 2015

Rattling the Bars, Ep. 1: 'The Real Cost of Calls'

What's the real human toll that the inmate calling industry is taking on prisoners and their loved ones? Host Eddie Conway talks to the affected families, the FCC, and those seeking to change the industry's predatory policies.
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EDDIE CONWAY, TRNN: You pick up your cell phone. Make a call. Shoot a text. And don't think twice about it. The luxury of being able to stay connected has become a 21st century rite of passage. But that's unless you're locked up behind bars.

The inmate calling service industry, or the ICS, has families with loved one and the inmates themselves shelling out an estimated $1.2 billion a year in phone call costs. The three big boys of the industry, Global Tel Link, Securus, and Telmate, don't secure these contracts by providing the inmates and their families with good service. Instead they reward state prisons with kickbacks. In Maryland, Global Tel Link has the exclusive contract with state prisons.

PETER WAGNER: The problem is the facilities pick the vendor on the basis of who will provide the most money back to the facility.

REGINALD SHABAZZ KING: GTL pretty much exploits the people that use it by constantly having to put money on the phone by, like, in a means of debit or through the institutional commissary.

CONWAY: And so how often do you think you get phone calls from the, your friends or your family in prison?

KEONA CRADDOCK: Well, because of the phones it costs too much. I haven't been getting as many as I would like, because I haven't been putting money on there lately. But when I was, I was [re up] like once a week, spending like, like $50 a week just to talk to my friends and family.

CONWAY: A Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Service employee sent a series of emails that shared that Maryland prisons receive almost $5 million worth of commissions from calls per year. The costs that families absorbed in the form of increased per-minute rates. A large percentage of the cost of calls in Maryland are due to kickbacks.

REGINALD SHABAZZ KING: My name is Reginald King, and everyone calls me Shabazz. I'm in JCI, Jessup Correctional Institution. I believe that's a part of the, part of this whole cycle is to eliminate that, that family bond. Because without the family, who's going to complain? Who's going to have a problem the the treatment? And this is the only means of letting anybody know that, that there's a problem immediately.

CONWAY: For the 2.7 million children that have incarcerated parents, phone calls are a vital part of keeping their family connections. The high cost of phone calls is making it impossible, or very difficult, to maintain that connection with the families.

CRADDOCK: Everybody don't have money to put on their phone. Everybody not fortunate enough to put $25 on the phone every week, or $50 every two weeks, you know, everybody not that fortunate. So if the phone call was free, to a lot of people, like a lot of kids being able to talk to their fathers, and stuff like that.

MIGNON CLYBURN: People go home as strangers when they get out. There are 700,000 inmates who are released back into society each year, and the majority of them who cannot afford to keep in touch go home as strangers. What does that mean? There is a family dynamic that has been broken. It hasn't had a chance to repair itself. And there, that consequence, results in 75 percent of them going back in within 5 years.

CONWAY: What happens is the more prisoners stay in contact with their family, their children, their loved ones, their friends, the more likely it is that they will maintain those bonds when they return to society.

CRADDOCK: Yeah. Because I mean, we don't talk in weeks and stuff. So this is like, when you do talk to them it's like you're just making sure each other is all right. And then the phone calls don't last that long, so you really can't even talk about everything that you want to talk about.

WAGNER: These are some of the poorest families in our country, and they're forced to choose between paying their rent, paying for food, and paying for these phone bills to keep their families together.

CONWAY: Although the FCC finally took steps to putting a cap on per-minute rates for prisoners from state to state in 2013, prisoners place most of their phone calls in their own state, allowing the predatory practice of charging exorbitant rates to continue unchecked.

ROBERT PRICE: Hello? My name is Robert Price. When it comes to the prison system it's horrendous. Scary place to be. It's like a cesspool of just violence, basically. You know, there's no help in there, no reform. It's like living hell, basically. That's what prison's about. From my understanding, what I know about it.

The calls, I can say they're like $0.40 for the first three minutes, then $0.04 every minute after that. But you only get 15 minute calls, in 5 hours a day. Every 5 hours throughout the day. It's hard. It's hard. Though I can say, well, prison is real hard in here.

KING: Most of my calls are out of the local area. So just for the first, for the acceptance of the call is $3.00, and for each additional minute is $0.30. So to call my family in Virginia is, it's astronomical numbers. So for half an hour, I'm spending practically $16.00, $17.00 for a half an hour phone call. And most of the time the system is rigged to a point where the phone will constantly hang up.

CLYBURN: And there was a sort of a tug-of-war, so to speak, between state authorities who said the FCC did not have jurisdiction over that, that they do, and what we feel is our ability to do so. I asked for over a year and a half for the states to weigh in and reform, because I knew from a legal standpoint, from a challenge standpoint, that that would be the easiest way. Only less--only a handful of them replied. It was very obvious after a year and a half that the only way for this to move was through this agency. And so we are going to move and take care of the entire pie as it relates to inmate calling rates. We feel that we have to do it, we feel that we have the authority to do so. And I know, according to the communications act, we have the mandate to do so. So we will do so.

WAGNER: It essentially becomes a tax by which the poorest people in this country are asked disproportionately to pay for the services of the prison system. That's just backwards, and that's not what this country is supposed to do.

CLYBURN: Case in point, to open up an account for an inmate, it's not uncommon for them to pay $9.50 to open an account. To maintain a monthly account, to keep that open, it's not uncommon for it to be $2.99 a month. To add money to a depleted account, it's not uncommon for there to be a charge of $4.75 each time you add--if you only have $10.00 a month to contribute, over half of that is gone.

CONWAY: Is this frustrating, and maybe harming the bonding and the relationship that you have with your family or friends, by being forced to miss them for weeks at a time because of lack of money, or a slow transition?

CRADDOCK: Yeah, it's frustrating. Because--it's frustrating because you have to wait so long for when you get the money order, they have to wait, like, two to three weeks for them to even process the money order, put the money on their account. And then they have to wait until they can be able to put their money on the phone. And then--and then with the writing, you think you'll write them, you'll get in contact with them faster. But then they tell you the mail backed up. And yeah, it's very frustrating when you ain't talked to your loved one in two, three weeks and you, and then you get on the TV and you hear how people are dying over the jail. So it's like, you be worried and concerned.

A lot of the time, I'd be happy when I hear from them. Even when they just called me and I don't have money on the phone and they just call and they tell me that, you know, it'd say their name or whatever. But I'd just be happy just to know that they're still alive.

CONWAY: While the FCC is working on capping the per-minute calls of intra-state phone calls, advocates are worried that the companies like Global Tel Link will just shift the calls to other unregulated fees, like account maintenance and connection fees. It even costs inmates or their families a fee to refund the balance on their accounts if they leave prison or in transfer to another one.

But what should the FCC really be focusing on changing?

WAGNER: Actually, I don't know if the FCC needs to ban commissions. What the FCC needs to do, though, is make sure that the rates charged to families are as low as possible. If the companies want to share some of their profits, to be honest, I don't care. But I'm very concerned about the ways in which the companies exert influence through the commissions, through campaign contributions, through making donations to sheriff-controlled charities. All these are abuses that come at the expense of the families. So what I think the FCC needs to do is to make sure that the rates and fees are as low as possible.

CLYBURN: One thing, we concentrate a lot on the rates. We don't often concentrate on the charges which they all ultimately have to pay. It's not just about what they pay per minute. It is about ultimately, at the bottom line, what is costing those who are receiving and making those calls. And so we have to be very careful and mindful that the rates do not, the cost, the burdens do not shift in other ways that would have at its impetus trying to make up the difference, so to speak, here.

We need to make sure that what families pay is what we know, and it's affordable, it's equitable, and that word I don't use often, it's fair.

CONWAY: We reached out to Global Tel Link for comments, and our calls weren't returned. But in a statement, they said this: Inmate calling services are not susceptible to one-size-fits-all federal regulations, nor are they required to be.

While prisons say their objective is to keep the cities safe from the criminals of society, how is being in bed with corporations like Global Tel Link advancing that agenda? How is depriving inmates of their loved ones' support going to do it? Studies have shown that when inmates are able to keep in touch via the phone, it lowers recidivism.

CRADDOCK: Over the jail I be hearing like, how it was set up that they only can come out for an hour. So you got all these people trying to get on the phone. So a lot of times people, a lot of my friends tell me they're just going to call me once a week because it be so much stuff going over the jail. So they got to choose when they come out if they can, going to take a shower, if they're going to go to rec, or they're going to use the phone. So they have to choose. And a lot of people try to choose the phone. But when you have 50 people in front of you, you've only got an hour--.

CONWAY: Trying to use five phones.


WAGNER: We need to keep families together, and anything we do that makes it harder for families to stay in touch with each other is bad for the families, it's bad for the people who are in prison. It's really what my grandmother would call penny-wise and pound-foolish. In the interest of making a buck off of families we're willing to make our societies weaker and spend more in prisons. That's just backwards.

CLYBURN: I cannot speak on how and what I could do to change it all. But I can say to you that having a sane and equitable and reasonable calling structure rates for those who are calling and receiving calls from facilities would be one important step for this, for reform. For equity. And honestly, I don't use this word often, but for fairness.

CONWAY: You could have a number of solutions. Probably the most equitable one would be to allow phone calls to be free, a certain amount per prisoner per week for their families. And then in addition to that if you needed to make more phone calls then you could charge a minimum fee for that. I think that would go a long ways toward bonding in families, and keeping prisoners in touch with their community and their loved ones.

For Rattling the Bars, this is Eddie Conway.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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