How prison phone calls become a tax on the poor

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Sarah Christensen Attorney At Law, P.C. - Attorney Colorado Springs

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How prison phone calls become a tax on the poor

By sarahchrist77708548, Apr 4 2016 04:05PM

On a recent sticky morning in a trailer park in Biloxi, Mississippi, Mary Jo Barnett switched on her 8-inch Samsung Galaxy tablet to speak with her 20-year-old daughter, Amber, who suffers from bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Amber is currently locked up 490 miles away in the Marion County Jail in Ocala, Florida, and these video visits are her only lifeline to her family and the outside world.


Without communication, Mary Jo says she fears her daughter may suffer a mental breakdown or start a fight, which could lengthen her jail sentence. “Just getting to talk to her and interacting with her can make the difference in her mindset,” Mary Jo says.


Communication, however, is enormously expensive for Mary Jo, a 52-year-old grandmother who lives on $733 monthly disability checks. The video visitations cost $10 per 30-minute visit, or $19.99 per month. Phone calls, meanwhile, cost $3.98 for every 15 minutes, plus a $9.95 fee to load money into an account. Part of the reason the calls are so expensive is because a private company, Securus Technologies, has an exclusive contract to operate the phone and video visitation system in the jail. But an even larger reason the phone calls are so expensive is because the local sheriff’s office takes a large cut of the money, called a “commission.” Last year, Marion County received $549,804.52 in commissions from Securus, according to contracts and financial documents obtained by International Business Times through a records request.


Studies have consistently shown that communication with family members lowers the rates of inmate recidivism. But calls are often too expensive for lower-income people, which make up the vast majority of those who are incarcerated.


Mary Jo, who recently had to borrow money from Amber’s older sister to load money into her account, says she’s thankful she can even speak to her daughter at all. She has a tablet computer, which means she can sign up for the video visitations for $19.99 per month. But she says other inmates in the jail have it much worse. In fact, she says that her daughter will relay messages from inmates whose families can’t afford the calls at all.


“It’s mainly hard on her children. They can’t speak to their mother. Because I can’t afford it. I can only do like $20 per month. That’s all I can afford. That’s only three phone calls.”


Pretty much all of the messages, she says, are pleas from inmates to family members to place more money on the inmate’s commissary and phone accounts. But often, she says, the family member will just say they can’t afford it. “Some of them just say, ‘Hi, I love you,’” she says.


In this way, Mary Jo has met Omarah Zemorah, a 42-year-old resident of Ocala, Florida, and the mother of a 24-year-old inmate, Estrella King, who is pregnant with her fourth child. Zemorah, who makes $8 an hour as a cashier, says her daughter, who is locked up because she violated her parole, will sell her food to other inmates in order to get them to relay messages to her and her children. “I can’t afford to talk to her,” Zemorah says. “My daughter sells her trays [of food] inside the county to be able to call me... It’s mainly hard on her children. They can’t speak to their mother. Because I can’t afford it. I can only do like $20 per month. That’s all I can afford. That’s only three phone calls.”


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Mary Jo Barnett and her daughter, Amber Barnett.

PHOTO: COURTESY OF MARY JO BARNETT


Zemorah, who scrapes by on food stamps and by taking extra shifts at the Dollar General store in Ocala, has custody of five children — two of her own and three grandchildren — and will soon have custody of a sixth when her daughter gives birth. Zemorah says that her grandchildren, especially the older boy, are suffering without being able to speak with their mom.


Her grandson, she says, “was an honor roll student, and he never got in trouble.” But now, “he went down to Fs and [has] bad behavior ever since [his mom] went back to jail.”


Because she works so often, in-person visitations are impossible. So Zemorah waits for the calls from Mary Jo. Mary Jo, in turn, waits for the calls from Amber. Amber, meanwhile, says the high cost of communication is literally driving people behind the jail walls insane.


“There’s so much stress,” Amber told me recently. “People are heartbroken. People miss their kids. They can’t talk to them. People go crazy inside.”


In October, the Federal Communications Commission voted to cap the rates and fees companies were allowed to charge families and friends of inmates. Mignon Clyburn, an FCC commissioner who led the charge for reform, has called the prison phone industry the “most egregious case of market failure” she has seen in her career.


Theoretically, the new rules would make it more affordable for families to connect. However, there have been setbacks.


While new rules that would lower the cap on call rates were scheduled to become effective March 17, regulators have encountered pushback. Late last year, Securus and Global Tel*Link, another prison telecommunications provider, filed a lawsuit against the FCC to block the regulation. A stay was granted, delaying the implementation of the new rate cap. Then, several states led by Oklahoma, joined the companies and filed a joint lawsuit that challenged the FCC’s statutory authority. Oklahoma also claims that lower phone rates will cost its budget $3 million in commission payments.


Commissions, however, are part of the reason rates are so high. The FCC does not have plans to ban the practice. However, in court filings the regulatory body notes that it “strongly discourages” their use. Regardless of where the money goes, family members just want a more affordable way to keep in touch.


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