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Price Gouging in Prison

David Shapiro,
ACLU National Prison Project
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August 10, 2010

Today, President Obama signed the Cell Phone Contraband Act, which, as the name suggests, makes it a crime for prisoners to possess cell phones. But a little-known provision of the new law could have far more important effects for prisoners and their families. The bill orders the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study the rates that federal prisoners must pay to use ordinary prison phones — and to investigate less expensive alternatives.

The GAO should take a hard look at prison phone rates. The fact is that prisoners who want to stay in touch with their children, parents, and spouses are being gouged. With steep charges to initiate a call, and astronomical per-minute rates, it can cost a prisoner over $30 to make a half-hour call to a loved one. Those who qualify for a prison job often make less than 25 cents per hour — so paying for a brief call to a son or daughter may require more than 100 hours of labor.

The financial burden often falls on family because prisoners cannot afford the outrageous charges. With poor people grossly over-represented in the exploding population of federal prisoners, price gouging makes it even harder for prisoners’ families, often impoverished to begin with, to make ends meet. In many cases, financial hardship prevents prisoners and their families from communicating at all. Families unable to pay for phone calls can scarcely afford plane tickets, and many prisoners are sent to isolated locations thousands of miles from their homes. All that leaves is letters — hardly a way to remain close to a spouse or a child (and impossible for some, given high rates of illiteracy among prisoners).

Cutting off contact not only harms prisoners and their families — it makes streets and prisons more dangerous. Studies have shown that prisoners who lose touch with their families while in prison become more difficult to manage while incarcerated, and more likely to commit crimes upon their release.

And who profits from this destructive system? Usually the answer is prisons and phone companies. The phone company, as the holder of an exclusive contract to provide phone service to a prison, jacks up rates without any fear of competition from other providers. And the prison, which doles out the monopoly, expects handsome compensation from the phone company in return.

Everyone else loses. Prisoners and their families suffer financial hardship or fall out of touch, and when sentences expire, prisons release a more alienated and less rehabilitated group of prisoners into society. The GAO study required by the new law should pave the way for reform by exposing the unconscionable charges — and unconscionable effects — of the current system.

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