Collect calls on Christmas Day

December 16, 2004

Amsterdam News

December 16, 2004

Collect calls on Christmas Day

By Patricia Allard

On Christmas Day, the dinnertime telephone ring does not have the same nerve-wracking effect it does the other 364 days of the year. Chances are it is not an annoying telemarketer or a dreadful creditor interrupting your meal - even they take the day off. But for families with a loved one in a New York State prison, the phones ring that day remains stressful. For many, answering it requires them to choose between hearing a loved ones voice and putting food on the table. Its an unfair choice no family should be forced to make.

To phone home, people incarcerated in New York State must call collect requiring families to foot the bill. In 1996, New York State entered a sweetheart deal with the phone service giant MCI, making it the sole provider of the states prison phone service. Talk about a captive audience. Since entering this exclusive contract, the state has made $175 million on families through commissions. Mrs. Patricia Walker heads one of those families.

When Mrs. Walkers husband calls from prison to wish his family a merry Christmas, it will cost $3 to initiate the call and 16 cents for every minute he is on the phone. This cost is startling 630% more than Mrs. Walker would pay to speak to anyone in New York who is not in prison. If the Walkers were allowed MCIs public consumer rates, they would pay $5 for a monthly service fee and 5 cents per minute for long distance calls. A 19-minute call, the average length of a call from prison, costs as much as the Walkers Christmas ham.

In New York people are often incarcerated hundreds of miles away from their communities, friends, and families. For many families, telephones are the only way to stay in touch. Because New York has granted MCI a monopoly on providing phone service, the company has no incentive to offer competitive rates. This stands in sharp contrast to a current product it offers the public: a phone card that provides 1000 minutes for a mere $29.99 less than 3 cents per minute with no per-call connection fee.

In fiscal year 2002, people incarcerated in New York State prisons made 7 million collect calls totaling more than 124 million minutes. These calls generated gross revenues for MCI exceeding $39 million, and New York State collected a generous $22.4 million in commission as a reward for extorting New Yorks families.

The human and fiscal costs of collect calls add up. Mrs. Walker pays $650 a month not for rent, but for her phone bill. If MCI charged a reasonable market price for phone service to prisons, Mrs. Walker could have dont other things for her family with that money like save up for a down payment on a family home, enroll her children in after school activities, or send them to summer camp. As another parent in Mrs. Walkers position puts in, Because my husband committed a crime doesnt mean that I or the children committed a crime. We are all paying for this and to have the costs of the calls go up to such high rates is utterly ridiculous.

CJ, whose father is in a New York State prison, asks, Why should thousands of children be denied he right to talk to their parents whenever possible? Family bonds are weakened every time a family cannot accept an over-priced call.

Research shows that encouraging people in prison to maintain relationships with friends and family is critical to preventing recidivism. When these bonds are weakened, it increases the likelihood that people will return to prison. In the long run, the state and taxpayers will pay for more money locking up the same people than it earns from these prison phone calls.

It does not have to be this way. New York State has at least two other options available to address the unjustifiably inflated per-minute rates for calls from prison. It could create an 800 toll-free number, which typically costs 7 cents per minute, an alternative people in federal prisons currently use to call their families. Governor Pataki could also explore debit calling, which enables a telephone company to manage debit accounts similar to the commissary accounts currently used by people in prison for personal spending.

Next Christmas can be different. Call Governor Pataki now and tell him to stop preventing children and families from communicating with loved ones behind bars. Tell him to adopt just and reasonably prices calling options for incarcerated people and their families.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Patricia Allard is associate counsel of criminal justice at the Brennan Center for Justice, NYU School of Law.