When a jail administrator sits down at the bargaining table to pick a new inmate phone service provider, it’s a daunting task. Hundreds of variables between dozens of companies must be considered, and after all is said and done, there’s virtually no recognition. But on the whole, jail administrators do a pretty good job at evaluating what companies present to them. Like any good public servant, they meticulously weigh the pros and cons of each provider to secure the most efficient solution for their county. Unfortunately, one critical factor is often lost in the noise surrounding inmate phone contracts and RFPs (requests for proposals): The costs passed on to inmate families.

These families have a hard lot in life. They are often already under significant pressure even before their loved one is incarcerated. Worse yet, the costs related to their inmate’s health lost wages, and communication falls squarely upon their shoulders. These are law-abiding citizens who cover these costs, paying capital out of their communities and into the corrections industry. At some point you’ve got to ask yourself: Does a higher commission rate justify that?

Who Pays for an Inmate’s Healthcare?

Healthcare is already a vast piece of the average family’s budget, but a single instance of illness can break bank accounts quickly. With that in mind, consider that incarceration facilities concentrate people with infectious and chronic diseases. While in jail or prison, inmates are covered by the state. But when a person is reintroduced to society after living in the superbug incubator that is an incarceration facility, they bring with them any number of health problems. According to researchers Nicholas Freudenberg, Jessie Daniels, Martha Crum, Tiffany Perkins, and Beth E. Richie, “people leaving jail may contribute to health inequities in the low-income communities to which they return.” After release, the most immediate point of contact for inmates is usually their family.

Just because inmate healthcare is covered by the state, that doesn’t mean families aren’t sending money to buy Tylenol or other incidental over-the-counter drugs from commissaries. These comfort/quality of life products can be an inmate’s only option when it comes to relieving their immediate pains. Meager prison wages can’t always cover the costs of such products, especially if an inmate uses them regularly. Thus, inmate families are again left footing the bill, in addition to the healthcare costs when their inmate returns home.

Who Pays for Depressed Economic Development?

It’s obvious that families lose income when a mother or father is incarcerated. However, the broad macroeconomics of the situation is less obvious. When a community supplies a large number of inmates to the corrections industry, “human capital in the community is generally depleted or in the case of the ex-offenders, developed in undesirable ways,” according to researchers Harold Watts and Demetra Smith Nightingale.

Significant reductions in a community’s labor force can lead to problems for area businesses, as well as decreased revenue for inmate families. None of that is right for economic development. When local companies struggle, it can strain the community as a whole. So in addition to spending more to support their loved ones in jail, the families of inmates are losing money in the form of lost productivity and a potentially worsened economic environment.

Who Really Pays for Inmate Phone Services

In the corrections industry, contact between inmates and their families is frequently touted as a recidivism-reducing force. But there’s a flip side to that: according to Cheryl Leanza, “[t]he costs of telephone calls to incarcerated people in the United States are often extraordinarily high—well beyond what most people in our country pay for telephone service. It is often cheaper to call Singapore at 12 cents a minute from a cell phone than it is to speak to someone in prison or jail.” These high rates are usually the result of inmate phone contracts with oversized commission percentages, not to mention the outrageous fees charged by some inmate phone providers.

“The high rates are a terrible burden on the friends and family members of incarcerated people—who often have to choose between basic needs and communication with someone they love. And the high telephone rates undermine social networks that can help inmates reintegrate into society,” as Leanza goes on to state. All of this is counterproductive to the goal of reducing recidivism, and unfortunately is standard practice for most inmate phone providers. Once again, the families of inmates pay for these inflated service costs.

Conclusion

There has to be a better way for jails and prisons to provide inmate calling services to constituents. Make no mistake, inmate families are the end consumers here. They are the tax-paying community members who just want the ability to speak with their incarcerated loved ones. Families already bear additional health and labor costs, not to mention the psychological stress involved with missing a family member—after all this, they shouldn’t be left to the mercy of inmate phone companies.

However, in this area jail administrators can make a huge difference, because they’re the ones sitting at the bargaining table. Jail administrators can ensure that exorbitant costs aren’t passed on to their constituents. They hold all the power in the phone contract relationship. If a jail administrator says “Jump” inmate phone companies ask “How high?” Enormous economic relief for hundreds of the most vulnerable inmate families across a constituency could be as simple as switching providers.

Ultimately, it all comes down to this: The highest commission rate shouldn’t be the determining factor when selecting a new inmate phone company. When it is, inmate families pay the price.

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