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OPINION: Should state be profiting off families that have someone in prison?

OPINION: Should state be profiting off families that have someone in prison?

According to its official website, the “Mission” of the Connecticut  Department of Correction includes being “a global leader in progressive correctional practices,” and its “Vision” involves providing offenders with “the tools and resources to make positive changes for a successful transition back into the community.”

The boilerplate is all there in black and white, so it must be true.

But how are inmates supposed to make “a successful transition back into the community” when the state cuts them off from that community by making phone calls to their families, friends and lawyers difficult and expensive?

How does turning inmate phone calls over to a Texas-based, for-profit outfit called Securus Technologies, which makes millions in the process, constitute a “progressive correctional practice”? And how does the state’s annual profit of $7.7 million from those phone calls — calls to and from some of the poorest people in the state — contribute to the idea of “correction”? Looks more like punishment to me.

The state’s cut (which, in mafia parlance, would be a kickback) goes to the Judicial Branch and the Department of Correction. 

Anyway, picture this: A guy goes to prison. Now, in order to talk to his children, or their mom, or his mom, he needs somebody on the outside — somebody with both access to a computer and a working credit card — to set up an account with Securus. It may be possible to do this stuff over the phone and/or without a credit card, but I don’t know how that would work.

I never thought about this stuff until recently, but now there’s a bill before the General Assembly that would make these calls free, as New York City recently did. I suppose I had assumed that the inmate just makes a collect call, at something not too much higher than the commercial rate, and somebody listens in, and that’s that.

Nope. Inmates or their families pay almost five bucks for a call of up to 15 minutes, which is pretty pricey. In other states, local and county jails often charge rates that are much, much higher — sometimes nearly 10 times what a call from the same state’s prison system would cost.

Things are better in Connecticut, but there are still extra fees — fees for opening an account, fees for adding to an account, fees for closing an account, fees for making a single call without opening an account — and the state makes nothing on those fees; it’s all gravy for Securus. (Securus and another company, GTL, dominate this lucrative market.)

Certainly the inmate calls would have to be monitored, for security reasons, and that would cost something. But for $7.7 million, the state trusts Securus to handle that.

Here’s what the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit think tank, has to say:

“At a time when the cost of a typical phone call is approaching zero, people behind bars in the U.S. are often forced to pay astronomical rates to call their loved ones or lawyers. Why? Because phone companies bait prisons and jails into charging high phone rates in exchange for a share of the revenue.”

Should the state of Connecticut be profiting from the hardship of struggling families that have someone in prison?

Is there nothing left that we won’t monetize?

Reach Glenn Richter at