Saturday, November 19, 2011

Rates for phone calls from jails and prisons should be federally regulated

My brother-in-law was diagnosed schizophrenic around the time he turned 20, he's struggled with drug addiction, and he's been homeless 90% of the time for I think over a decade now. No surprise under these circumstances that he is frequently in and out of jail. Given his preference for the West coast, he's often in jail on the other side of the country where we can't possibly visit him in person.

Which brings us to the issue at hand: Those who have not had friends or relatives land in an out-of-state jail may be unaware of this, but the rates to accept a collect-call from jail are typically very high. Well, no, that's not quite accurate: The rates are fucking extortion, that's what they are.

My mother-in-law tipped me off about a recent Huffington Post article about a prison in Georgia which charges inmates $5/minute for phone calls. That's over eight cents per second, for those of you playing along at home. And don't think that's an isolated case; I'm afraid I can't tell you what the rates are from the various jails my brother-in-law has landed in, because we only did it one time and were so shocked by how expensive it was we couldn't really consider it in the future. But it wasn't much less than in Georgia.

The HuffPo article focuses on how it is private prisons seeking to maximize revenue that are doing this, and while this is true, it somewhat misses the point: The government is letting them do it.

Corporations excel at maximizing short-term profit; in fact that's pretty much what they do. Something like two centuries ago, it was observed that if an entity is the sole provider of a particular good or service, they can maximize short-term profit by doing some really brutal sketchy shit. Like, I dunno, charging inmates and their families five fucking dollars a minute to make a phone call, for example.

We have laws that limit trusts and monopolies for exactly this reason. The government either ensures that there are multiple entities offering the particular service, or else when that is unfeasible, e.g. in the case of utilities, the sole provider has to submit to heavy government regulation in order to make sure they are playing fair.

But this is somewhat of a special case that doesn't fall under the existing legislation. (There are many special cases like this, for what it's worth) A prisoner at a particular jail or prison has no choice about who provides phone service for him, or for that matter, who provides any sort of long-distance communication whatsoever. It's either an in-person visit (which is not remotely practical if you're imprisoned on the opposite coast of your family) or bending over and taking whatever fees the jail wants to shove up your ass. There is no ability to leverage the competitive nature of the free market here: What are you gonna do, make sure you get tossed in a different jail the next time?

I can't entirely blame the companies who run these prisons. They are, after all, doing exactly what they are supposed to do: heartlessly maximizing profits above all other concerns. And what they are doing is legal. But it shouldn't be. Private prisons have the exclusive ability to profit from their inmates' desire for outside communication , and consequently that ability ought to be closely regulated to ensure it is not being wielded in an exploitative manner. Maximum rates should be dictated by federal law and kept at a reasonable level.

And by the way, if anybody shows up in the comments and says, "If you don't like it, don't commit a crime in the first place!," fuck you. With a rusty knife. Maybe you missed the part when I said my brother-in-law is a diagnosed schizophrenic, making it nigh impossible for him to hold down a job. Or maybe you didn't notice the fact that it's not me who committed the crime, but it is me who would be the victim of this immoral extortion if I want to let my wife speak to her brother.

Exploiting the families of inmates for huge profits is dirty pool, and it ought not to be allowed. And that's all I have to say about that.

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