[NY is particularly cruel in its treatment of prisoners.  A good numbers of ours are persons targeted in 7 of our poorer communities in NYC and convicted of drug possession.  The bulk of our prisons in contrast are located in upstate NY — many near the Canadian border and hundreds of miles away from families left behind.  Children with imprisoned parents supported by a remaining single parent are fortunate to see the missing one even rarely.  The additional horror is the exploitation by some of our major phone companies (particularly MCI) of even phone contact with excessive collect call rates — the only way prisoners can call out from prison.  Shame!  Ed Kent]

The Bankrupt-Your-Family Calling Plan

Published: December 22, 2006 [NY Times editorial]

Studies of prison inmates clearly show that keeping them in contact with friends and family is vital to giving them a chance to create an honest life after jail instead of committing new crimes that land them right back behind bars. Yet the simple act of picking up the phone to call home can be bankrupting for inmates and their families.

The cruel and counterproductive system now in place around the country charges them as much as six times the going rate for collect calls placed from inside state prisons. The collect-call service providers keep a stranglehold on the business by paying the state prisons a legalized kickback called a “commission.”

These costs are borne by spouses, parents and other collect-call recipients who typically come from the country’s poorest families. Worse still, these families can be barred from receiving a prisoner’s collect call at all until they open costly accounts with the same companies that provide the prison phone service.

With bills that sometimes reach into the hundreds of dollars a month, families must often choose between talking to a jailed loved one and paying the rent. The lost contact is especially crushing for imprisoned parents, who make up more than half the national prison population and are often held in prisons hundreds of miles away from their children.

A bill that went nowhere in Congress this year would have mandated fair rates for interstate calls made from prison. The bill, introduced by Representative Bobby Rush, Democrat of Illinois, would also have required prisons to use both the collect-calling system and the less expensive debit-calling system. Used in federal prisons, debit calling lets inmates use computer-controlled accounts to pay for easily monitored calls to specified phone numbers.

The collect-call-only system is being challenged in court in a number of states, including New York, where a closely watched case is scheduled to be argued before the state’s highest court in early January. The suit rightly argues that the telephone markup is a hidden levy on families who already support the prison system through their taxes.

State prison officials say the money is used to pay for programs that benefit inmates. But it also gouges the poorest citizens — driving them deeper into poverty — to pay for prison services that the state is obligated to provide. It might be legal, but it is also counterproductive and morally indefensible.

“A war is just if there is no alternative, and the resort to arms is legitimate if they represent your last hope.” (Livy cited by Machiavelli)

Ed Kent  718-951-5324 (voice mail only) [blind copies]

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