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Sunday, 26 June 2011

View from a PA prison cell - inmate phone services; who gets the benefits?

As well as my husband being incarcerated, there are approximately 2 million other Americans sharing his circumstances at the moment. I write to a couple of other inmates and one is an elderly guy in Pennsylvaina doing a life sentence. He is very active in the politics of incarceration, and could be considered to be a royal pain in the behind to the "prisoncrats" he regularly writes to. He wrote something recently that I wanted to share with you all, and now I have his permission to post it, here it is:

Mother Mary by Jon Y
Sixty-year-old Mary, disabled and impoverished, languishes in her Philadelphia room, wishing that during what remains of her life she could converse with her son who is incarcerated in a distant Department of Corrections (DoC) prison. Neither she nor her son writes well enough to communicate through letters. medical issues preclude her from travelling either to that prison to visit him or to a Prison Society site for a video "virtual visit" thereby leaving her telephone as their only viable means of communication. However, the DoC's imposition of a 44.4% socially regressive commission on Pennsylvania inmates' telephone contracts with families (Prison Legal News, April 2011) is a nearly impenetrable barrier to Mary experiencing the joy of conversing with her son.

The DoC contract with Global Tel*link ("GTL": owed by Wall Street's Goldman Sachs), telephone service provider for prison inmates in more than half of the States. Mary's son cannot telephone her "collect" because she is unable to afford a mandatory GTL prepaid account for $6.25 per 15-minute collect call in as much as GTL would charge her a 20% service fee for each $25 payment that she would invest in such a pre-paid account.

Purchase of pre-paid telephone fees ($5.15 per 15-minute call) is available to her son via the prison commissary but he has little or no personal income. Since the DoC requires that inmates purchase no less than $10 (plus 60 c sales tax) of pre-paid telephone time, his prison account is inadequate. Mary's only option is to send $10 to her son to pre-pay for 2 calls - but she learns that maintaining familial relationships for inmates clearly is not a priority for the DoC.

Research of the Prison Legal News (April 2011, pp 1-17) confirms that (1) phone companies do not compete to offer lower phone rates to inmates' families but rather to provide larger kickbacks to prisons, and (2) since such commissions are not controlled by State or Federal regulatory agencies, the only limit on the maximum rate for prison phone call costs is the top rate of kickback permitted by service contracts between GTL and the DoC. For example, in contrast to GTL's kickback enhanced $5.15 charge for Mary to speak with her son, GTL's non-kickback contract with Rhode Island DoC costs RI inmates a flat fee of just 70c for 20 minutes! GTL obviously perceives that RI prison telephone service contract as profitable. If Mary's son were confined in a federal prison, her costs for telephone reunions with him could be as little as 90c for a 15-minute call.

Not in Pennsylvania! The DoC directs families to send funds  to inmates through "JPAY", a Florida corporation that charges an additional $4.95 if contacted by phone or $395 if contacted by email to deposit $10 into a prison account. Does the DoC also receive a kickback from JPAY? Mother Mary, $14.95 poorer, awaits a call from her son. However the system has not finished fleecing her yet.

From each entry of wages, gifts etc into an inmate's account, 20% is seized as payment of court-imposed fines, costs and retribution. Upon Mary's $10 being transferred from JPAY to her son, $2 is automatically deducted. Thus, in order to reunite with her son, Mary becomes monetarily responsible for his sentence! With only $8 of that $14.95 actually deposited in his prison account, Mary's son is unable to comply with the DoC's $10-minimum purchase of pre-paid telephone time. If Mary could have afforded $25 to overcome such deductions, JPAY charges would increase to $6.95 via email and $7.95 by telephone!

Mary is but a composite of the hundreds of indigent (grand)parents of inmates who are being victimized by the DoC's $7+ million kickback from GTL. Children of inmates are even more helpless to overcome such agency greed. They should not be cut off from imprisoned family in order for the state to turn a profit. South Carolina, California, Michigan, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York and Rhode Island do not accept kickbacks from their telephone service providers!

The DoC claims its $7+ million annual kickback from GTL is necessary for the telephone system to function in prisons but then diverts more than $4 million of that commission to the DoC's General Fund. That is not a "reasonable user fee"! The DoC further alleges that $3 million of the kickback is retained to "benefit" inmates! If that were so, the DoC could simply hire a single employee at each prison for an annual wage of $20,000 to process money orders sent to inmates by families rather than requiring JPAY processing at the exorbitant rates cited above.

But who cares? Do you? Our Marys cannot fight this struggle alone. If you care for those like Mary, it is time for education, advocacy, coalition building and community organizing to lead the struggle against a kickback so ill-conceived that is shocks the conscience!

(The views expressed above are Jon's not mine, though I do share his fury at the extortionate charges levied upon inmate families by the phone companies, JPAY and the States involved)

1 comment:

  1. In my opinion that 44% commission or any other money a government receives is a TAX. Pass through costs for a service, fine, but profits for the state, and letting corporations bottom feed on a captive customer base, wrong. Governments are supposed to be in service to the people, not profiting from them or setting up corporations with monopolies.

    Additionally there is nothing in the laws that singles out families of convicted or remanded people for a special tax obligation so in my mind, it's more evidence the keepers of the law are the biggest criminals of all..


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