For People in Prison, Communication is Costly

Drako is a dog who has recently reached a milestone. Drako, a dog being used by guards at a prison in Vacaville, California, found his thousandth cell phone in June. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, it's taken Drako only four and a half years to find that many phones, which are considered contraband within the prison system. Illegal cell phone use in prison is on the rise, but its use may come from necessity as much as anything else.

Certainly, there is a degree to which cell phones are being used for crime from within prisons around the country. Nevertheless, as an anonymous formerly incarcerated person told the Broward/Palm Beach New Times, "The vast majority [of cell phones are] used by inmates desperate to stay in touch with, and hold on to, their wives and children…if my wife, child, or a close friend were ill, I would blow the month's phone budget."

Money transfers and phone services - both vital in prisons - are controlled by private corporations that can charge outrageously high fees. JPay, a Miami-based corporation that provides money transfers in 33 states (along with other services, like email, in others), can charge as much as $6.90 for a single $25 transfer in Tennessee. JPay's blog emphasizes the danger of cell phones in prisons, and claims that JPay's services can mitigate those dangers. In 2009, Terry L. Bittner wrote a blog post for Corrections One, a website for corrections officers, about the growing danger of cell phones in prisons. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Bittner was at the same time the Director of Security Products for a corporation which made Cell Hound, a product sold to prisons to locate contraband cell phones.

Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission capped interstate phone call fees at 25 cents/minute, a charge that is still considerably higher than a person outside of the prison system would have to pay. Local calls, however, remain extremely costly. In San Francisco, the Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to lower the cost of in-state regional calls in county jails, reducing local call prices by 38%. Though efforts like these, which in no small part due to advocacy by the ACLU, are improvements, they are not enough.

As long as private corporations are contracted for services like money transfer and cell phone usage, incarcerated people and their families will continue to suffer the consequences. The incentive for local municipalities to keep such an unjust partnership intact actually lies in the payments they are guaranteed from these corporations, as the New York Times found in a review of phone contracts: "In Baldwin County, Ala., … the sheriff's department collects 84 percent of the gross revenue from calls at the county jail. A Texas company has guaranteed the county at least $55 a month per inmate."

The California State Sheriff's Association argues that lowering fees for calls and money transfers will "negatively impact inmates," claiming that the funds collected from such services go towards inmate amenities. However, privatization of prison services does not have a history of benefiting either people in prison or local communities. In fact, the primary beneficiary from increased privatization may not even be human: Vacaville's prison added thirty new phone-sniffing dogs to its canine unit in the last year.

Harry Waksberg is a Los Angeles-based writer and lazeabout. He and his grandmother are reading The New Jim Crow.

Photo by Michael Pereckas (Flickr: Police Dog) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons