Imagine you are a 17 year old with a six-month jail sentence in Massachusetts. You are the oldest of four children, and your parents work minimum wage jobs. You usually take care of your siblings after school because your family cannot afford childcare, and you’ve never been away from home before. You miss your family and the comforts of home, and want to call your mom, but you know that a 30-minute call will cost the same as a precious hour of childcare for your siblings. What do you do?
Unfortunately, this is a problem faced by many incarcerated individuals and their families. The cost of phone calls from prisons and jails has historically been a problem, to say the least, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, the issue has made its way into the public eye. As visiting hours were cancelled to prevent the spread of the virus, families with incarcerated loved ones found themselves having to choose between spending their money on keeping in touch with their incarcerated relatives, or on essential items such as food and childcare. However, now that visiting hours are slowly being reinstated, the cost of phone calls largely remains the same.
It is unethical to put a price on human contact. Even if one accepts the premise that certain crimes should be punished with incarceration, by no means does that incarceration have to include all of the hardships that are taken for granted, especially the lack of human contact. Lowering or eliminating the cost of phone calls from prisons and jails is a moral imperative.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of phone calls which can be made from prisons and jails: out-of-state (including international) and intrastate. The Federal Communications Commission controls only out-of-state calls, and voted to put a price cap of 21 cents per minute in 2015. In May of 2021, the FCC voted to lower the minimum to 12 cents an hour — which is the Federal Prison Industry’s minimum wage — but this price has not yet hit the market.
The FCC also attempted to put a cap on intrastate calls, which make up for 80% of all calls, but a federal appeals court ruled that they could not do so because it was out of their jurisdiction. This issue of jurisdiction explains the wide range of prices of phone calls from county jails — in the United States, the average cost of a 15-minute call is $5.74, and they can cost up to $24.92.
Why is this too expensive? In 2014, the Prison Policy Initiative found that the median annual income of incarcerated individuals was $19,185 before they were incarcerated, which is 41% lower than non-incarcerated individuals of similar ages. This income comes out to approximately $50 per day, meaning that a family which called an incarcerated loved …….