Driving around Ferguson, Missouri, Radley Balko exposed how petty (and often phony) traffic infractions gave rise to a cash machine for municipalities, and a collection scheme that forced the poor from poverty to prison. This came as an epiphany to many, who were unaware of how fines, fees upon fines, created a system from which escape was functionally impossible. You can’t pay what you don’t have.
As Noel Erinjeri pointed out at Fault Lines, the Supreme Court in Bearden v. Georgia held the failure of a court to ascertain whether non-payment was deliberate or due to inability was unlawful. Noel pondered why nobody seemed to be aware of Bearden, why courts didn’t seem to care and lawyers weren’t screaming about it. There is no good answer to the question.
But if there is pervasive wrong being done by judges who view their role as collection agents for the state, at least it can be seen from the surface. Beneath the surface, there is an economy built on the fact that prisoners are the most captive audience of consumers around, and they need services too.
Foremost is the telephone scam, the means to connect to their families while in jails and prisons. And so it was with great relief that the FCC took on the gouging of inmates. While a challenge by the phone companies appeared to derail the plan to cap rates, it’s going to happen. And advocates threw a party for their great victory, while phone companies shrugged and figured out alternative revenue schemes.
Despite the rate-capping order, the phone companies’ litigation against the F.C.C.’s efforts to rein in their excessive charges is likely to continue. But even as they fight in court, the companies are dodging oversight by exploiting a system that is largely unregulated: prison financial services.
Wait, what? For those of us who have never had the pleasure of life in a cell, we lack a firm understanding of the myriad opportunities to take advantage of prisoners.
Unless they’ve known someone who’s been incarcerated, most people don’t know that the corrections system has an entire commerce arm of its own. Everything an inmate can buy — phone calls, commissary, copays for substandard medical care, video visitation or the new email service — is purchased through a special account created by the prison or a private company.
It turns out that the many miseries endured on the outside also exist on the inside, with one huge difference. On the outside, we have some small choice in the matter. Not so for prisoners.
Merely to add funds to an account, the family or friends of inmates must pay a service fee. I have an account myself with the prison phone giant Securus so that inmates I want to keep in touch with can call me. In February, I’d loaded my phone account without any fee. Then, a few weeks ago, I was charged $6.95 to add $5 of call time. So, the $11.95 that used to buy 49 minutes then purchased only 20.
Greedy? Ridiculous? Wrong? We’re just getting started, kids.
These fees are an additional money grab by the phone companies and the prison commissions system. There’s a fee to create an account, a fee to fund an account, even a fee to get a refund. The companies are also taking advantage of a loophole in the F.C.C. order that allows them to add special fees for single calls by a user who doesn’t want to set up an account with them. For the “PayNow” option from Securus, for example, the call cost is $1.80, but the transaction fee is $13.19. Before the F.C.C.’s order was implemented, ancillary fees added nearly 40 percent to phone call costs for prison customers.
And to add a wrinkle to the wrongfulness, prisons want to do away with live jail visits, which are annoying (dealing with angry families and crying kids), problematic (because of the potential for introducing contraband into the facility) and expensive (time spent moving prisoners, then performing anal searches on prisoners after their visits). Without live visits, there is no contact with family except through devices for which payment is required.
The costs of phone calls, which also has an added layer of problems since calls are recorded and inmates can’t seem to stop themselves from talking about stuff they shouldn’t be, took decades to address. And the FCC’s rate caps, while certainly a good thing, doesn’t begin to fix the problem of gouging prisoners.
While the fight over the price of phone calls raged, a new thing happened called email. What we see as a new means of communication, prisons see as a new revenue stream. And since the companies that provide services to prisoners split their vig with the prisons, they have a huge, galloping horse in the race.
Based on the assumption that no one will give a damn about an economy built on gouging prisoners, because nobody gives a damn about them anyway and they’re criminals, so they deserve to be abused in every possible way, there is also the fact that these scams impact the rest of us that gives rise to concern.
It’s not just that this system is exploitative and cruel, taking from those who have little enough already. But this profiteering is also imposing costs on society. It’s been established that regular contact between inmates and their friends and family on the outside lowers the rate of reoffending upon release. So, if that contact is rationed because of phone company profiteering, the result is more recidivism.
In a discussion of empiricism-based determinations of recidivism, Judge Richard Kopf (who loves empiricism) argued that we need to take everything into account, even if it’s politically incorrect, in determining the length of sentence. My rejoinder is that one of the handful of legitimate goals of imprisonment is rehabilitation, and that defendants shouldn’t be penalized because prisons suck at their job.
Maintaining communication and connection with family is a significant influence on whether a prisoner, when he’s paid his dues to society (most of them come out, eventually, you know), will move forward to a productive, law-abiding life, or knock grandma on the head to steal her gold chain. Who matters more, prison phone giant Securus or grandma?