The Price of Communicating From Behind Bars

April 5, 2012

Staying connected with loved ones
behind bars is an expense that many families struggle with today.  Aside from exorbitant phone
charged by private companies who provide phone services to prisons,
families are also charged excessive amounts for money transfers and Email.

the correctional facility that a prisoner is sent to happens to be privately
run, chances are the company in charge has figured out a way to turn a profit
off any transactions between that prisoner and their loved ones. It is because
of the high costs within those facilities that organizations advocate for
regulation within the prison communication system in order provide relief for
families. Policy makers need to ensure correctional facilities negotiate
reasonable rates for all communication services provided by private companies.

The type of facility a prisoner is
sent to – whether publicly or privately run- can have significant impact on the
financial burden families can expect to bear. The types of services offered to
inmates can vary depending on whether they are held in a federal or state
facility, maximum or minimum security and publically or privately run.

In a publicly run federal facility,
inmates have access to an electronic message system run by the Federal Bureau
of Prisons called TRULINCS. For .05 a minute, inmates can use a computer to
send electronic messages to approved recipients, which are then reviewed by
correctional staff and forwarded to a 3rd party site. From there,
recipients can log on to review messages and respond. Inmates pay for this
service by accessing their inmate trust fund account. 

Inmate trust fund accounts are
managed through funds collected from commissary purchases, telephone fees and
usage fees. Traditionally families of prisoners are able to make deposits into
these accounts by mailing money orders for just the price of a stamp or by using
the Western Union Quick Collect Program. The money deposited into these
accounts can be used for discretionary spending such phone calls, commissary
purchases, family visiting expenses and restitution payments. The process and
cost of managing paper mail deposits can often lead prisons to outsource these
services to private companies who advertise speed and efficiency and additional
services- for a cost.

According to the Prison
Policy Initiative
, approximately 6.1% of state prisoners are held in
privately run prisons, and along with 11.9% of federal prisoners. Often times,
public prison systems will contract out communication and money transfer
services to private companies that charge up to .44 an email and as much as
$12.95 for an electronic fund transfer [EFT].

To use the private EFT service to
send money to a loved one serving in the State of Florida’s DeSoto
, a person would be charged $11.95 for an electronic transfer amount
between $200 and $300 online, $12.95 by phone. This rate is incredible and stings
struggling families who are forced to use these methods as opposed to simply
sending money orders.          

in many cases, this is the only option
for people who have loved ones in contracted facilities. These companies often
times provide services many people might consider privileged. Video messages
that can be received at kiosks in select facilities, and MP3 or JP3
correction-approved music player for $39.99 can also be purchased.

In today’s day and age, it would be
hard to argue that access to email is a privilege. Many jobs require online
applications; employers contact applicants via email and educational
institutions assign students with school account to ensure they can be informed
of important updates.

To communicate with a loved one via
the email service offered by a private company in the State of Indiana’s Edinburgh
you would, at the minimum, need to purchase a “booklet” of ten
electronic stamps for $4.00.  These
services then deliver copies of emails to inmates, scan and return written
replies. On the surface, when compared to the average price of a regular
postage stamp which has an average cost of about .44, this price might seem
logical- except email services are free. Compare your free Gmail account to the
$25 annual charge by one company to have an account which receives scanned
letters from prison and charges $1 for every 3 pages.  

put it plainly, family members of inmates must pay exorbitant rates to send
money to loved ones behind bars, and those loved ones must pay additional fees
from that money to stay connected with those family members. Companies have
created a successful business model off of the desire of families to stay
connected. Fortunately, advocacy organizations have stepped in to open up
alternative communication options.

the Bars
, is a joint effort of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s
Center for Civic Media and the Media Lab. This open source web platform
collects letters from inmates and posts them online as blogs at no charge thanks
to volunteers. Its ultimate goal is have others join the effort of collecting
and reposting letters in order to make this a sustainable effort, extending the
service to the hundreds of inmates on its waiting list. 

Social media sites have also become
an effective tool for story telling by organizations like Thousand Kites, whose campaign that
uses community radio to tell stories from inmates and relay messages from loved
ones. Like this you-tube
that relays the heart-breaking story of people struggling to stay
connected with loved ones because of high phone rates. The Last Mile program in San Quentin
California selects prisoners to partner with the Silicon Valley Technology
sector in order to foster a successful transition into the outside world. The
Last Mile offers weekly “tweet sheets” to participants on which they write
tweets that are later posted online by volunteers, giving a public voice to
participants and familiarizing them with social media.

Ensuring that prisoners become
technologically savvy and remain connected with their families’ benefits
society, reducing the chance they will re-offend and return to the system. While
the work of all these organizations is important and admirable, it is important
to realize they serve as band-aids for a broken system. In order to help
alleviate the burden on families of prisoners, public officials need to push
for federal and local reforms-without loopholes.