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Inmates need access to affordable communication

Now more than ever, communication via telephone is vital. During the coronavirus pandemic, in-person visitation is often restricted.

prison cells
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Many may think if someone does the crime, they should do the time with all the collateral consequences, but the reality is far more complicated. The mass incarceration crisis and the predatory prison and jail telephone industry are affecting Minnesotan families every day. Telephone companies providing services in prisons and jails are profiting by charging incarcerated persons rates beyond what is affordable and reasonable.

Approximately 123,000 Minnesotans are currently imprisoned or under criminal justice supervision. Despite comprising only approximately 11% of Minnesota’s overall population, non-Hispanic Black, Latinx, and Indigenous Minnesotans make up over 50% of the jail/prison population. There is also a clear socio-economic disparity. According to the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office, 75.4% of jail inmates have a household income of less than $30,000 annually. In comparison, Minnesota’s median household income in 2018 was $70,300. Black, American Indian, and Hispanic Minnesotans live in poverty at a rate 3 to 4 times higher than non-Hispanic whites. This means inmates of color are more likely to enter jail or prison with limited monetary resources.

Kevin Reese, director of criminal justice at Voices for Racial Justice, is one of many Minnesotans who knows firsthand the adverse effects of predatory prison phone rates. Reese’s work as a prison justice organizer is rooted in his mission to end mass incarceration. Incarcerated at 18, Reese was separated from his family, including his 1-year-old child, friends, and community. He tells how he quickly felt lost and disconnected from his generation. Reese depended on telephone calls to raise his son and stay in contact with his family. Physical visitations were rare; the distance between the institution and his community, the need for family members to take off work, and the price of gas were barriers to physical visitation. He began organizing in prison because he recognized he was not alone in his feelings of isolation and that communities are stronger together. Access to phones in prison was necessary for him to work as an organizer. Via the little speakers on the prison phones, Reese was brought to community meetings and could be an active member of his community.

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Individuals in Minnesota prisons who receive visits are 13% less likely to be convicted of a new felony offense and 25% less likely to have a technical violation revocation of supervised release. Yet inmates are charged more than they can afford by predatory telephone industries to stay connected with their loved ones. The Minnesota Department of Corrections charges $0.75 for a 15-minute in-state call from state prison, but the jails charge, on average, $7.19 for the same call. For inmates with limited resources, these costs can be devastating.

Mariah Zell
Mariah Zell
Moreover, inmates’ wages in prisons are simply not enough to cover telephone costs. Minnesotan inmates, on average, earn between $0.25 and $2.00 per hour for regular, nonindustrial jobs. Inmates working in state-owned businesses (“Correctional Industries”) make, on average, between $0.50 and $2.00 per hour. Besides phone costs, inmates often must pay commissary costs, child support, and medical co-payments. The costs to stay connected fall upon their families, burdening lower-socioeconomic communities. Reese stated he is disturbed there are persons in our country who must decide between feeding their family, paying bills, or staying in contact with incarcerated family members. A study found the cost of phone calls and visits with incarcerated family members led more than 34% of families into debt.

Kathryn Quinlan
Kathryn Quinlan
Now more than ever, communication via telephone is vital. During the coronavirus pandemic, in-person visitation is often restricted. Actions have been taken to limit the cost of phone calls during the pandemic, but these actions are not enough. Access to affordable communication must continue after the pandemic.

Please support the reintroduction of the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act of 2019, or the introduction of similar legislation. Doing so will restore the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) authority to stop phone companies from charging incarcerated people predatory rates. Call your senators and sign the petition here.

Mariah Zell and Kathryn Quinlan are law student practitioners with the University of St. Thomas School of Law Community Justice Project. 

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