Prisons and profits: legalized extortion of inmates and families

Want to call? Email? Visit by video? It will cost you, big time

A 2014 survey by a coalition of organizations found that 1 in 3 families with incarcerated members go into debt to pay the costs of staying connected through calls and visits to jails and prisons. (Specifically, the most frequently cited barriers are the cost of phone calls [69%], travel [47%] and other expenses related to visits [46%].) “Families are often forced to choose between supporting their incarcerated loved ones and paying for the basic needs of family members who live outside,” the report concludes.

I am “fortunate” to have served the majority of my time in federal institutions, where the cost of calls and email is not as high as in state prisons or county jails — although it also meant being sent hundreds or thousands of miles away from home. So, I was not prepared for the shock and outrage of the costs when I was transferred from the D.C. jail to Northern Neck Regional Jail in Warsaw, Virginia, in transit to the U.S. penitentiary in Coleman, Florida.

I have been here barely two weeks and already, I have spent almost $500. When I first arrived, I was given a bed roll (a blanket and two sheets), two inmate jumpers, a hotel-sized bar of soap, a toothbrush, a comb, a small tube of toothpaste, a washcloth and a towel. Anything else — drawers (underwear), socks, even a piece of paper and a pen — you have to buy from the commissary. On my first night, I lay in bed cold and shivering, naked underneath my prison-issued jumper, because I had to wait to buy anything else from the commissary. Since money doesn’t transfer between institutions, you start with zero and that means you’ve got to use the one free call they give you to ask a relative or friend to send some funds. If you don’t have anyone who can do that, you’re really out of luck.

The extortion doesn’t stop there. You’re constantly bombarded from all angles, profit-making is intrinsically woven into the running of the institution. (It’s obvious in the smallest details: For example, you can’t hang up your underclothes to dry after you wash them because they want you to buy more from the store.)

Then there’s the food; you only get small portions of inedible garbage, forcing you to buy, marked way up, from the commissary. Everything costs about three times more than it does in the feds or the D.C. jail. Like, a soup cost 30 cents in D.C., but 95 cents here. It all adds up. Even going to the medical clinic costs a $10 fee, and if you need medicine, like an aspirin, that’s another charge. If you don’t have the money, they’ll watch your account and dock you as soon as you do.

Forget about anyone sending you a newspaper, book or magazine. They run a monopoly on that too. That kind of material has to be bought from the institution’s own vendor, which means you’ll end up paying twice the price you’d pay otherwise. A book that normally costs $20 will cost $40.

Then there’s communication with your friends and family. Want to use the phone? It costs 25 cents a minute, and if you are unfortunate enough not to have money in your account, then you must call your people collect at a cost of $8. Sure, you can email, using the system the institution contracts with, but that will cost 50 cents. Twenty-minute video visits, since COVID-19 has eliminated personal meetings, cost $7 each. It’s just one big cash machine, fueled by people who are already poor. (County jails in particular are all about money because they often are run by sheriffs or judges who have a vested interest.)

It is family members, mostly women in the family, who must shoulder the financial burden of maintaining contact, since inmates normally have no way to earn sufficient funds. Eighty-two percent of the participants in the 2014 survey reported that family members were primarily responsible for phone and visitation costs. In a similar survey of visitors to San Quentin State Prison in California, the majority of women reported spending as much as one-third of their annual income to maintain contact. As a result, nearly 2 in 3 families (65%) with an incarcerated member say they are unable to pay for all of their basic needs. But the cost is greater than that; family members who are not able to talk or visit with their loved ones regularly are much more likely to report physical and mental health problems.

As the Prison Policy Institute observes, counties and states have plenty of negotiating power with their telecom providers and could insist that rates go down — as demonstrated by Dallas’s new cent-a-minute jail phone rates and Denton County, Texas’s dime-a-minute video calls. What we need are long-term changes, with institutions renegotiating their contracts with telecom providers to secure lower rates and refusing kickbacks from the companies. State legislatures and local governments also can act by passing bills to make phone calls from prison and jail cheaper or free. In California and Massachusetts, such legislation is currently being considered.

Prison already takes away our freedom, separates us from our families and puts on hold so much of our personal development. But it seems that is not enough. The goal is to bankrupt our families as well. It’s a short-term gain for companies and facility administrations, but a long-term loss for communities that has ripple effects well beyond the individuals. We need to take the profit out of prisons.

Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 25 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at MoreThanOurCrimes.org

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