Saturday, March 28, 2015

MayaSchenwarr. Prison phone company whines, “We miss you!” Truthout. 18 Feb 2014.

Giant, money-sucking phone companies are only one symptom of the monolithic prison-industrial complex that rules this country. But they’re a potent one. They’re a burning reminder that within this insidious system, destruction - of families, of communities, of human lives - turns a profit.

Late last week, I opened my email to find a message with a sad, guilt-trip-laden subject line: “It’s Been Awhile.” I opened it up to a blaring announcement - “WE MISS YOU!” - accompanied by a photo of a woman smiling encouragingly. No, this wasn’t a tender note from a group of sweet long-lost cousins or old high school chums.
This email was a message from Securus, the private phone company that services the Illinois prison system. It wanted my business back.
About four months ago, to the immense joy of my family - most of all, to the joy of her baby daughter - my sister was released from prison. While she was incarcerated, I spoke with her at least every other day, and as you may have heard, prison phone calls cost a lot. My calls totaled $4.10 apiece. Illinois prices recently were lowered to $3.55, but that’s still steep for many prisoners’ families; most don’t have much money to spare, so they’re often forced to do without calls. In some states, costs are even higher. (A recent FCC ruling set caps on prices for interstate prison phone calls, but the change doesn’t affect calls made from prisons in state.)
A 2011 investigation by Prison Legal News disclosed some of the motives behind the pricey rates:

These contracts are priced not only to unjustly enrich the telephone companies by charging much higher rates than those paid by the general public, but are further inflated to cover the commission payments [kickbacks to state contracting agencies], which suck over $143 million per year out of the pockets of prisoners’ families - who are the overwhelming recipients of prison phone calls. Averaging a 42% kickback nationwide, this indicates that the phone market in state prison systems is worth more than an estimated $362 million annually in gross revenue.

For people with multiple incarcerated loved ones, those companies’ kickbacks can mean back-breaking sacrifices. My friend Barbara Fair, who lives in Connecticut, knows the prison phone struggle well. Each of her seven sons has been locked up at one point or another. (There’s a reason, she notes, saying, ”The greatest factor influencing my sons ending up in prison is the fact that they are young African-American males, and thus the targeted commodity for the prison industry.”)
For Barbara, phone calls were just one of the many, many burdens piled on top of her during those incarcerations. Her phone bill at one point amounted to $400 per month. She lost service often, trying to keep up with payments. In poor communities of color, the theft enacted by private prison phone companies exacts an ongoing, chronic financial and emotional toll.
So - why keep talking on the phone? The thing is, phone calls are not a frivolous luxury for the families of prisoners. They’re an essential component of maintaining relationships, as most prisons are so far from home that frequent visits are impossible for poor people (and for most busy people, for that matter). Sixty-two percent of parents in state prisons are placed more than 100 miles from home. For federal prisoners, distances are often much vaster.
Lower-priced phone calls - or even free phone calls - won’t “solve” the disaster that is the institution of prison. In fact, when it comes to having a loved one in prison, phone calls are a small consolation. Speaking to each other can simply become a reminder of how your family member, partner or friend has been deprived of freedom and disappeared from society.
But for incarcerated people, phone calls are one of the few meager ties that link them to their community, if they’re lucky enough to have a community to call their own. Bonds with family and friends are crucial to prisoners inside the institution and upon their release - when they’ll need support to stay afloat, and, if possible, avoid a return to prison. Stats show that people are a whole lot less likely to recidivate if they’ve stayed in touch with family while locked up.
As long as there are prisons, people behind bars must be able to communicate with their loved ones on the outside.
Giant, money-sucking phone companies are only one symptom of the monolithic prison-industrial complex that rules this country. But they’re a potent one. They’re a burning reminder that within this insidious system, destruction - of families, of communities, of human lives - turns a profit.
So, Securus: You miss me? You’re sad that it’s been awhile? Well, for the moment, I’m going to take a pass on your services. For good measure, you’re going straight to the spam box. As for myself, I’m going straight to work, to see what I can do to make you go away for good.

If you’re interested in learning more about and taking action against the prison-industrial complex and all its minions, here are a few sites to peruse: 

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Maya Schenwar is Truthout’s editor-in-chief and the author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better. Follow her on Twitter @mayaschenwar.
Previously, she was a senior editor and reporter at Truthout, writing on US defense policy, the criminal justice system, campaign politics, and immigration reform. Prior to her work at Truthout, Maya was contributing editor at Punk Planet magazine. She has also written for the Guardian, In These Times, Ms. Magazine, AlterNet, Z Magazine, Bitch Magazine, Common Dreams, the New Jersey Star-Ledger and others. She also served as a publicity coordinator for Voices for Creative Nonviolence. Maya is on the Board of Advisors at Waging Nonviolence.

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