A person in jail looks at a picture.
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Severing the Lines of Communication

Communication with family and friends lightens the strain of separation and the mental toll on incarcerated people. Being able to stay in contact lowers the recidivism rate and reduces incidences of violence, two selling points a $1.4 billion private prison telecom industry has used to secure its hold on the carceral system (Prison Legal News, Bloomberg). While the modernization of prison technology has opened up opportunities for those inside, companies like Securus and Global Tel Link (GTL) exploit the basic human need for connection and communication by monopolizing all forms of communication. 

More than a third of the families of incarcerated people go into debt to pay for phone calls and visitations (Who Pays). This financial burden disproportionately affects low-income households and people of color who are stuck in a never-ending cycle of violence, poverty, and mass incarceration (Washington Post). Women of those incarcerated are primarily responsible for these fees. Since 44% of Black women have an imprisoned family member, compared to 12% of white women, the toll of incarceration adds to the “deepening inequities and societal divides that have pushed many into the criminal justice system” (Ella Baker Center, Cambridge University Press). Plus, a shift to high-tech devices and AI prison technology and surveillance can incorporate new forms of algorithmic bias against Black and Brown faces and voices (Pew Research).

TAKE ACTION

• Tell Congress to #EndtheException in the Thirteenth Amendment that allows the use of slavery as a “punishment for crime” in correctional facilities by passing the Abolition Amendment.

Tell Congress and the FCC to regulate the prison telecom industry to ensure prison phone justice. On a state level, tell your state elected officials to protect families and make prison and jail communication free.

• Demand your state senators support the Inmate Calling Technical Corrections Act, which would clarify the FCC’s authority to regulate the phone calls and fees from prison telecom services.

The emergence of prison technology like video visitation, electronic messaging, and tablet educational services can be a humanizing experience, but the cost for such an exchange is often predatory. Typically, free services like sending an email come at a price of 40 cents per email (The Marshall Project).

“Nobody said,” ‘We don’t want tech in prison,'” Bianca Tylek, the founder and executive director of Worth Rises, said. “But the reality is we should not be depending on the same companies that have preyed on our communities and people for decades to be the ones to introduce that technology” (Mother Jones).

Correctional facilities opt into prison technology services from companies like Securus and Global Tel Link. Their products often replace free phone calls and face-to-face visitation options (The Guardian). On average, one 15-minute phone call from a facility to the outside world, including an attorney, is $5.74, but it can be as high as $24.82 (Prison Policy Initiative). This doesn’t include additional fees like adding money to an account. In 2021, GTL charged $0.99 to add money online but $5 to add it over the phone. Adding money with Securus costs $3 per transaction. Each company has a $50 deposit limit, which leads to additional fees incurred for making multiple deposits (Business Insider, Securus). 

The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) guidelines cap the cost of out-of-state phone calls for prisons and jails at about $0.21/minute and target predatory fees (FCC). But these companies use loopholes to get around the vague regulations that give discretion to these companies to pass any charges to the user, including third-party transaction fees. Those without bank accounts who rely on money transfers can expect to be charged $4.95 – $11.99 from MoneyGram or Western Union as a “referral fee” on behalf of these prison phone providers. This arrangement allows prison tech companies to collect “hidden profits in these third party payment systems” (Prison Policy Initiative). 

Securus and Global Tel Link also create digital voiceprints of incarcerated people, which are put into a database and used to identify people who engage in “suspicious activities.” These prints are retained even upon a person’s release and can identify non-incarcerated folks who consistently communicate with incarcerated people. Those who opt out of voiceprints have gotten their phone privileges restricted (Intercept).

The same companies have also been sued for allegedly recording privileged phone calls between attorneys and their incarcerated clients. These recordings were shared with prosecutors in some incidences, a violation of the Sixth Amendment (Intercept, Prison Legal News). This invasion of privacy and overreaching surveillance extends to the families of those incarcerated: Securus obtains the cell phone locations of those who use their services and can share this information to law enforcement without a warrant or further consent (ACLU).

Recently, correctional facilities and even the federal Bureau of Prison have substituted mail sent from friends and family members with photocopies. The company stores the digitized correspondence for years and incarcerated people receive less personal, distorted, grainy copies of letters and photos (Mother Jones). This “heartless technology” is meant to curb contraband but adds to the dehumanization of incarcerated people (Prison Policy Initiative). Facilities have also replaced in-person visits with costly video visitations prone to technical glitches. Some are left unrepaired for months, leaving many cut off from loved ones entirely if they weren’t already shut out by prohibitive costs (Journal Record). 

The prison telecom industry aims to run prisons with the “efficiency of a for-profit business,” resulting in the extortion of every last penny and every bit of privacy incarcerated people have left (Microsoft). Reform or digital modernization is not the solution in an already corrupt and profit-hungry carceral system. Abolition is. 

KEY TAKEAWAYS

• More than one in three families go into debt while maintaining contact with incarcerated family members due to phone calls and visitation. 

• Access to communication with loved ones and the outside world is known to lower the recidivism rate, curb prison violence, and positively affect the health of incarcerated people. 

• Privatizing prison technology and communication add a costly financial burden on incarcerated people and their families.

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