Law

Stop Squeezing Prisoners' Families for Cash

Replacing visitors' hours with costly videoconferencing is a short-sighted policy.

Prison is hard enough without adding burdens on poor families.

Photographer: Photographer: Noah Berger/Bloomberg

Get caught committing a felony, and the government is apt to do terrible things to you. Stick you in a cage. Control what you eat, when you sleep, what you do with your time.

Should the government also be allowed to prevent you from seeing your family?

Some prisons are ending face-to-face contact for prisoners, shunting them instead to a video calling system. This system costs $12.99 for 20 minutes. For a population that tends to start out economically disadvantaged, that’s a heavy financial burden. Not to mention that you can’t hold a daughter’s hand, place a comforting arm around a father's shoulder, or hug your wife.

Prisons, as we all know from watching television, have a pretty significant contraband problem -- some of it brought in by visiting relatives. If you keep prisoners from mingling in person with their families, you can keep them from getting their hands on some items they shouldn’t have.

Of course, that doesn’t necessarily make this good policy. We could probably end the scourge of littering if we simply imposed the death penalty for dropping a fast-food wrapper on the street, but we all recognize that this would be a disproportionately costly “solution” to the problem. And preventing prisoners from ever getting to touch the people they love, while also preventing children of prisoners from even holding hands with their parents, is a pretty high cost.

But let us assume, arguendo, that the problem of contraband in prisons is so heinous that it justifies depriving families of the ability to touch an incarcerated loved one. How can we possibly justify charging $12.99 a pop for the video substitute?

It's not just a problem with videoconferencing. Phone calls from prisons are horrifically expensive. So, often, are ordinary items in the commissary, and there are frequently surcharges for families to deposit outside money in those commissary accounts. Innumerable indignant articles have been written asking the same basic question: How can we justify price-gouging poor people who are already suffering through a prison term -- and by extension, the innocent families, also mostly poor, who are already suffering separation from a family member?

There are partial explanations: Items in the prison commissary can’t necessarily be dispensed as easily as they are at the grocery store, because prisons have to ensure that prisoners don’t get access to any packaging that could be turned into a weapon. And phone calls are so expensive in part because every call has to be recorded and spot-monitored to ensure that, say, a crime lord is not continuing to run his business while in prison.

And yet, prison phone calls tend to be far more expensive than can be justified by citing the cost of recording calls, or even the labor needed to occasionally listen to them. A large fraction of those absurd prices is explained by economics: Prison is a monopoly where the “customers” are physically prevented from leaving under pain of death. In such a market, we would expect things to be priced to squeeze the customers until they bleed, and lo and behold, that’s just what we see.

It’s customary to blame the companies who provide prison services for this state of affairs, and believe me, I do. But as the Washington Post reported, a substantial share of the money goes to governments. According to one study, about 42 percent of the cost of an average call was going to kickbacks -- pardon me, commissions -- to the governments that signed the contracts. Given that there are, in fact, some extraordinary costs involved in offering phone service to a prison, it seems likely that the government was making more off of exorbitantly priced phone service than the companies were.

The FCC cracked down on phone-gouging in 2015, but an appeals court reversed that decision this year. Even while call costs were capped, prisons had lots of other ways to squeeze money out of prisoners and their families. And according to the Post, they often engage in predatory tactics to make sure that that sweet, sweet money keeps rolling in -- switching to proprietary deposit systems at the commissaries rather than letting families send the prisoners money orders, or ending in-person visits so that they’re forced to rely on an expensive videoconferences.

Advertised as a boon to families, video visitation presumably allows persons in prison to connect with their families from anywhere on the globe by live video. This “service,” however, is financed largely by poor families. Seventy percent of the contracts, according to one report cited by the Post, require that the video visitation replace in-person visitation. 

I understand that some people will have a hard time working up much sympathy. These people broke the law, after all, and incarcerating them costs a lot of money. Why shouldn’t we recoup as much as possible?

But if it doesn’t seem wrong to you to make some struggling mother pay a $7 fee every time she wants to give her son a little money to spend on Oreos and antacids -- or $13 to see his face when she wishes him a happy birthday -- ask yourself whether you’re willing to tolerate higher crime as a result of losing slightly less money in the short term on the incarceration system.

Whatever your opinion on prisoner rights, we all have a common interest in ensuring that when prisoners get out, they don’t commit new crimes. Well, families have a big role to play in reducing recidivism. Getting out of jail and getting on the straight and narrow is hard. You have to build a new life while complying with a host of regulations that the rest of us don’t have to put up with. And you have to find a regular job in a world where not many people want to hire convicted felons.

Families help prisoners over those moments of despair when they just don’t think they can make it. They provide the incentive to stay out of prison, so that you can be there to watch a son grow up or a daughter graduate from college, or perhaps, just watch your Mom make dinner for the thousandth time. Family connections can be valuable sources of jobs for people who are having a hard time finding one. So it’s not surprising that research tends to show that prison visitation is correlated with lower recidivism rates. These effects are not necessarily enormous, but any reduction in recidivism is a clear gain -- not just in less crime, but also in less money spent tracking down, trying and incarcerating repeat offenders.

So we have a social interest in making family bonds as strong as possible. And therefore we should think long and hard before embracing any policy that makes it harder to visit prisoners. Video-calling technology should be welcomed as an additional way for prisoners to stay in touch with the people who can help them through their eventual re-entry. But for just that reason, we should want to make it as cheap as possible, rather than trying to make it generate revenue to fund the prison system. And we should be very reluctant indeed to make it the only way for prisoners to see the people who will eventually welcome them home.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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