Hi, Mom, its me, Jimmy ...

Many of us use the telephone for e-mail correspondence; I can contact a brother in Iowa, a sister in Japan and as many others as I might want to reach – even my editor in Chicago – all for a little over 10 cents.

Not bad, considering that in many states when a prisoner wants to talk to a loved one the call must be made collect. The initial charge is usually between one and two dollars, though in Ohio it is $2.50 and as high as $3.50 in Michigan. Added to this is a per minute charge which can be as high as 36 cents. Calls are limited to 15 or 20 minutes after which they are automatically cut off.

Another call, if it is allowed, incurs the same surcharge. If a call is interrupted for any reason and re-instituted, another surcharge is automatically billed to the recipient. A typical 20 minute call can cost an Ohio prisoner’s loved one $9.70, according to the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).

In many states, contracts for providing such phone service are up for bids from telecommunication companies. The contracts are generally granted based on the percentage of profits promised to the state granting them.

At the beginning of January 2000, according to The Washington Post, California, the state with the greatest number of prisoners, received prison phone service from MCI and GTE, which returned 43 percent and 33 percent, respectively, to the state for a total profit of $20.5 million. The providers for New York were MCI and Bell Atlantic, both of which returned 60 percent, netting the state the same $20.5 million. These are but two examples of the kind of arrangements made around the country.

In 2000, the AFSC’s Criminal Justice Program, together with Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), conducted a nationwide campaign against these outrageous charges, during which they contacted prison officials, phone companies and state legislators. A similar campaign had been conducted in Michigan the previous year by the state chapters of both groups.

They argue that, as Penny Ryder, then director of the AFSC Program, said, “The high phone rates contribute to prisoner isolation. ... [P]risoners who have support groups on the outside – usually their families – are much less likely to commit crimes after leaving prison.”

And too, as noted by Shelley Anzalone, a program associate, “This penalizes prisoners’ families, who only want to maintain contact with a loved one in prison. They have not committed any crimes.”

Jackie Gray, a mother in Sacramento, says weekly calls to her 24-year-old son, who is in prison for burglary, can shave nearly $400 off her monthly disability check. “He deserves to be where he is. He needs to take the consequences for that,” she said, “ but I shouldn’t have to be paying on top of that. I did everything I could to raise him right.”

Her son could be paroled in four years. She said, “Do you want my son released on parole in worse shape than going in or do you want him being a good citizen with family support?”

One mother in Florida expressed feelings of guilt because she’d been obliged to tell her son not to call since she could not afford it.

The federal government’s Bureau of Prisons and some states have instituted debit accounts into which prisoners pay amounts to be drawn upon as calls are made. Other states debit prisoners’ “inmate accounts” the same way. Such accounts are built up either by money the prisoner earns working in the prison or by funds sent to the prisoner. With respect to the latter, however, it should be noted that some states take a percent of the money sent to prisoners up front. While there is nothing taken in Missouri, 5 percent is deducted in Nevada, and Washington state takes as much as 35 percent.

A recent Sacramento Bee article noted that California and other states are adjusting their profit percentages and looking into alternatives to collect calling. About 20 are considering or have considered laws to reform telephone rates and the commissions they engender.

Most states, however, have resisted such action because of budget constraints. Some have even eliminated whatever oversight of prisoners’ telephone charges they may have been doing.

The Equitable Telephone Campaign (eTc), a national coalition that includes the AFSC Criminal Justice Program and CURE, launched an effort in January 2000 to reduce the exorbitant rate charged for prisoners’ calls. Its aims are to eliminate all surcharges on prisoner-initiated calls; allow prisoners to make direct long-distance calls using a pre-paid debit account; and to insure that all prisoners have access to phones.

If you are interested in joining the campaign you can do so at www.curenational.org/~etc/, or by sending an

e-mail to kayperry@aol.com or writing to eTc Campaign, c/o MI-CURE, PO Box 2736, Kalamazoo, MI 49003.

Julia Lutsky is a contributor to the World and an activist on prisoners’ rights and anti-death penalty issues. She can be reached at blaine.jack@prodigy.net