Prisons and jails are rolling back free phone and video calls. They should be extending them instead

Amidst a pandemic and recession, policymakers should be fighting for extended — if not permanent — financial relief for incarcerated people and their families.

by Wanda Bertram, September 11, 2020

Covid-19 has put people with loved ones behind bars in a difficult bind: In-person visits are risky (and have been suspended in many places), but families have to pay in order to stay connected remotely through phone and video calls. For the past several months, some state and local governments have provided relief for these families in the form of occasional free calls. But now, as the pandemic still rages, many facilities are phasing them out.

We checked in on several counties and states that offered free calls at the beginning of the pandemic, and found that many have ended or curtailed the practice. Middlesex County, Massachusetts stopped offering free calls last week. Delaware appears to have ended free phone calls in August; Vermont ended free video calls in June. California, which in April offered three “free calling days” per week, has reduced its offering to two days per month. Pennsylvania has reduced its offer from five free phone calls a week to just one.

Officials may say (as in Middlesex County, MA) that they are phasing out free calls because they are bringing back in-person visits. But for many families, visits still aren’t safe. Family members with medical vulnerabilities may not be able to leave their homes, especially to travel to correctional facilities, which are hotbeds of viral spread. These families depend on phone and video calls as much as they would if in-person visits were still prohibited.

Even people who feel comfortable resuming in-person visits are likely still paying for more phone calls than they did before the pandemic. For one thing, in-person visits may be coming back very slowly, with only a limited number of visits available. What’s more, even where visits are fully restored, the stress of the pandemic means that most families need more communication than normal. People with friends or family behind bars need to stay up to date on their loved ones’ health and provide emotional support, especially given that chronic illnesses that make people vulnerable to the virus are more common behind bars.

The pandemic is making communication more important. Meanwhile, a recession is making communication less affordable. Even in normal times, one in three families with an incarcerated loved one go into debt paying for phone calls and visits, and 50% struggle to pay for basic housing and food needs. Withdrawing free calls now will hurt these already-needy families when they can least afford it.

In the short term, free calls should be extended as long as the pandemic and recession persist. Facilities with welfare funds for incarcerated people (ironically often funded by revenue from phone calls) should draw on these funds, if necessary, to cover the costs charged by phone and video providers. (Some welfare funds have large unspent balances.) Facilities should also pressure their providers to offer more calls free of charge, or at lower rates. Counties and states have plenty of negotiating power with their telecom providers to bring rates down — as evidenced by Dallas’s new cent-a-minute jail phone rates and Denton County, Texas’s dime-a-minute video calls.

But temporary free calls are just a stopgap measure. People with loved ones behind bars need permanent relief from the high cost of keeping in touch. The pandemic should provide an opportunity for states and counties to make long-term changes, such as renegotiating their contracts with telecom providers to secure lower rates, and ending the practice of taking kickbacks from the companies (which drives up the cost of calls for consumers). State legislatures and local governments can also pass bills to make phone calls from prison and jail cheaper or free — in California and Massachusetts, such legislation is currently on the table. Ultimately, the policymakers in charge of jail and prison communications should not be prematurely attempting to “return to normal.” Instead, policymakers should be fighting for a fairer future.

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