It struck me this past summer when I went to a hearing at the Department of Telecommunications and Cable (DTC) that communication is not a high priority for prison phone companies. Nope, you can't expect a telephone company to care about the quality of contact when they're raking in money.
Bet you didn't know for some prisoners — after connection fees, after dropped calls, in other words, after incredible frustration — it costs an average of $30 for a 20 minute call from a Massachusetts prison to a loved one. Bet you wouldn't guess that there's an extra charge to reconnect when a call is dropped. And this is not confined to Massachusetts.
Most of us wouldn't blink an eye about the number of people behind bars who are unemployed and can't talk to their kids or husbands or sisters or dads because they can't afford it. It wasn't high in my consciousness and I worked in a prison. Nope, not in this age of calling everywhere for a fixed fee; not in the age of skype. But surprise, surprise, as if punishment wasn't enough, we now have keep-your-loved-ones-away by creating telephone policies that create more pain. Prisoners want phone calls so much that a standard punishment behind bars has become taking away phone privileges for a week or so.
Prisoners' Legal Services was asking the DTC to investigate the phone service, both cost and quality. And after listening to some of the testimony, I was up in arms. My cell phone dropped calls drive me crazy. My Comcast poor TV reception drives me crazier. Imagine being in prison and having those problems magnified by gazillions?
One woman testified that she has three sons incarcerated. She has to get funds from family members and friends to make phone calls. Another said she has an overdrawn bank account from supporting her friend behind bars. An attorney testified that a 16 year-old mentally ill client of hers who had never been away from his family is in prison for life; the family cannot afford to call him every day; and he needs that contact to stay sane.
TO STAY SANE PEOPLE. We are talking about helping incarcerated men and women become better citizens aren't we? Or are we back to that same old conversation that punishment rather than rehabilitation is the only point of prison.
►Here's a site to find out more about phone justice for prisoners. And let's remember, we can only tacklie our criminal justice system, brick by brick.