Shopping for a new inmate telecom service provider can feel like walking through the shampoo aisle of your local supermarket; way too many options, and not nearly enough time to try them all out. As a jail administrator, you’ve got a whole community relying on you to make a reasonable choice when it comes inmate phones and video visitation platforms. That can feel like a lot of pressure. However, many of the best incarceration officials see it as a challenge. “How can I make the absolute best choice for my county?” they ask themselves, surrounded by desks stacked with RFPs and proposals. Choosing a new provider is tough, especially when so many vendors only differentiate themselves based on commission rates. Perhaps the best approach to selecting an ICSP involves stepping back and considering the end-user—and especially the family finances of that end-user.

In a previous article, we discussed the pressures inmate families face while their loved ones are incarcerated. The piece explained that in most cases, law-abiding inmate family members are responsible for covering the healthcare, economic, and communication costs related to incarceration. One factor that article failed to adequately address was the post-release impact inmates have on family finances. This may come as no surprise, but returning inmates face a number of economic challenges in the free world. Consequently, their families face those struggles as well.

Employment

Employment opportunities for former convicts are underwhelming. Not only is the inmate’s relevant job history depreciated, their individual skills and competencies may have decayed during their time spent in prison. Social networks dwindle without attention, and contacts who could have provided career references or job search assistance are likely gone by the time the inmate gets out. All of this is compounded by the fact that a criminal record on a job application is a serious limiting factor.

Regrettably, these limitations are exacerbated by other problems, as detailed by researchers David J. Harding, Jessica J.B. Wyse, Cheyney Dobson, and Jeffrey D. Morenoff: “Low levels of human capital, poor health, and lack of work experience also pose barriers to former offenders’ economic stability and mobility. Forty-one percent of those released from prison lack a high school education, and 73% have a history of drug and alcohol abuse.”

This economic insecurity isn’t limited to the released inmate. Any income hardships inmates face after release will trickle down to impinge family finances. To put it bluntly, when former inmates can’t afford to put bread on the table, their families will have to pick up the bill.

Public Aid

Since ex-inmate earning power is so underwhelming, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is ample government assistance for former inmates and their families. The truth is another matter. Researchers Harding, Wyse, Dobson and Morenoff go on to state that “former prisoners face considerable barriers to attaining economic stability and integration. One important set of barriers includes legal and policy restrictions on former offenders. Many states have banned those with felony convictions from benefits such as food stamps, TANF, SSI and residence in public housing, either permanently or temporarily.” This means that the people with the worst long term economic prospects also receive little public assistance for their basic survival. With no help from the state, inmates can only turn to their family, and as a result family finances take another hit.

Debts and Fees

Sitting in jail can be very expensive, but not just in terms of opportunity cost. While on the inside, inmates can rack up debts and fees related to all sorts of things, and those obligations don’t just disappear after release.

According to a report published by The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, “the costs of calls, visitation, commissary, health care, and other costs are borne by individuals with convictions and their families. This study found that it is family members, predominantly women in the family, who primarily bear responsibility for the financial costs of maintaining contact. For a number of these women, including many who were mothers, these costs put them into debt.”

It’s obvious that taking on debt with the prospect of decreased future earnings is a recipe for disaster as far as family finances are concerned. Yet inmate families do it anyway—which in some ways is a testament to how important contact with loved ones is. Despite that, it is in this area that jail administrators can provide the most immediate relief.

Ella Baker Infographic.
Image Courtesy of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights

Relief for Inmate Family Finances

When inmates are released back into society, they’ve done their time in the eyes of the law. At this point, it’s no longer necessary to extend their punishment through reduced employment opportunities, inaccessible public aid, or excessive debt. In light of these factors and others, the Ella Baker report reached the following conclusion: “We need to shift our sentences to focus more on accountability, safety, and healing of all individuals involved rather than punishing those convicted of crimes.” They couldn’t be more correct, especially about accountability. The reality is that law enforcement groups, citizens, politicians and businesses all need to hold each other to a higher standard if criminal justice reform is going to stick. We’ve all got skin in this game, and we can all contribute in our own ways. For jail administrators, consciously considering inmate family finances is the best way to make a real, positive impact.

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