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Cost of prison phone calls throwing families into debt

Posted at 2:35 PM, Sep 22, 2021

Many of us have felt the isolation the COVID-19 pandemic has brought into our lives, but few have felt that isolation more than people in prison.

During peak COVID months in 2020, many prisons increased isolation to decrease the spread of the virus within the facility, and because of it phone calls to people on the outside became more scarce.

"If you have any problems before you get to prison, once you get to prison, they're only going to get worse because of the isolation and because of the idleness," said Dean Williams, executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections.

But even more pressing is the cost of those calls that have plagued inmates and their friends and families for years.

In 2015, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights published a study that estimated as many as one-third of families with a loved one in prison go into debt because of how much they pay to stay in touch. With 15-minute phone calls as high as $8 in some states, it is not hard to see why.

"​I know the personal toll it can take on a family as well as on the community when you can't reach your loved one and ensure they are safe," said Amber Pedersen, a policy adviser who works with Williams.

Pedersen's cousin went to prison a few years ago and her family had to take on the price of those phone calls.

"They're people and we're people, so that's really what it comes down to," she said. "​Families often have to go into debt to maintain contact with their loved one and they have to move money around to sustain that communication."

"We have some users who are spending upwards of $500 a month just to stay connected and so it varies across the country," said Uzoma Orchingwa, co-founder of Ameelio, a free video conferencing software that is looking to circumvent the multi-billion dollar prison communications industry.

"My idea was rather than try to negotiate and plead with these for-profit companies to reduce the cost of the calls, why don't we just build an alternative that is completely free," said Orchingwa.

Currently, Ameelio has 200,000 users and has helped more 400,000 people stay in touch. In 2020, after launching, Ameelio teamed up with the Iowa Department of Corrections to make its service available in every prison in the state and starting in November, when holiday calls begin to peak, it will do the same in Colorado.

"These are not well-to-do families in the first place," said Wanda Bertram, spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative. "These are low-income, working-class people, but they are pushed over the edge by the coast of communication."

Bertram studies this issue among the many she says plague the prison industry. Private communications companies will negotiate phone rates and fees with prisons in various states, and in all but 11, that state's department of corrections will receive a kickback of the revenue to help fund various costs. In Colorado, director Williams says it goes to pay for those who monitor calls.

To those on the outside, it can appear like this is a system built for companies to make money, and it is. But for families with loved ones on the inside, the communications system can be a way out.

Research published in the Journal of Criminal Justice shows recidivism, or re-offending after release from prison, dropped by 56% for those who were able to stay in touch with loved ones during their sentence.

"Without that kind of contact you lose all your connection to the outside world," said Bertram. "And not only that but your social connections get frayed to the point that when you come out of prison later, who do you have to call on to figure out where to live? How do you get those connections that are going to get you a job?"

In a system built on the principle of isolation, it is a path away from punishment and toward better outcomes

"I think it's really important that we don't contribute to the barriers of relationship building that a prison sentence has already put in place," said Pedersen.