The Price of Communicating From Behind Bars

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

If 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 Annex, 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.          

Unfortunately, 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 facility 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.  

To 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.

Between 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 video 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.  

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