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Don't Phone Home From America's Prisons
February 9, 2012 12:11 PM   Subscribe

Inmates and their families pay much higher rates for phone calls than average consumers. Most of this is due to kickbacks received by the prison system from providers. This has led to a marked increase in the use of contraband cell phones. Government recently commissioned the GAO to explore lower cost alternatives.
posted by reenum (36 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
If there was only some phone phreaker who spent time in prison who'd be able to say something.
posted by rough ashlar at 12:16 PM on February 9, 2012 [4 favorites]


I find it hilarious how they describe people firing phones wrapped in grass over the prison fence from a potato gun, then draw the conclusion that the only solution is jamming the signals.
posted by mannequito at 12:21 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Phones are smuggled in by guards, visitors and inmates convicted of misdemeanors with lower security restrictions.

PROFESSIONAL MAGICIAN. DO NOT ATTEMPT.
posted by griphus at 12:24 PM on February 9, 2012


Maybe high prices lead to mobile phones in part, but I think mostly it's got to be driven by the inmates' desire for secrecy. They "randomly" monitor land-line phone calls in and out of prisons.
posted by resurrexit at 12:28 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Always a bad idea to have police and prisons fund themselves. This sort of outcome is entirely predictable.
posted by aerotive at 12:29 PM on February 9, 2012 [14 favorites]


When my cousin was deployed in Iraq, the only way for him to call home was using an AT&T calling card. I wonder how much they paid for that privilege.
posted by mkb at 12:33 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Maybe high prices lead to mobile phones in part, but I think mostly it's got to be driven by the inmates' desire for secrecy. They "randomly" monitor land-line phone calls in and out of prisons.

This is not true at all.

It just so happens that I know someone who is in jail (pending trial due to some really fucked-up criminalization stuff that's basically about "being alive while poor and transgendered", but that's another story). And one of the big challenges has been paying the fees for her and for everyone in her family and among her friends (each of whom has to pay a monthly charge to be able to call.)

Jail landlines are crowded and not always available, or not always available safely to an inmate.

And then there's the desire for privacy. Not secrecy, privacy. Would you want to talk about your personal medical stuff, or talk about your mom's operation, or tell your sweetie how much you miss them....or talk about being queer or trans, or talk about racist violence around you or talk about prison rape...right out there when maybe the person who was threatening you could hear? Or the guards could hear so they could pick on you some more? Maybe withhold your meds?

Prisons suck. They have given up even the pretense at rehabilitation and the budget crisis is just making things worse. Prison companies and prison guards' unions simply rely on the fact that most middle class people have very little contact with the prison system, so they don't know anything about its many injustices or else they think all prisoners are pedophile-meth dealer-rapists who were justly found guilty and deserve what they get.
posted by Frowner at 12:35 PM on February 9, 2012 [60 favorites]


Well, when you lose your right to vote, government kind of just stops caring about you.
posted by steamynachos at 12:38 PM on February 9, 2012 [7 favorites]


They "randomly" monitor land-line phone calls in and out of prisons.

Well, yeah. There are well-publicized accounts of people remaining in control of gangs from prison. Monitoring phone calls seems pretty obvious.

But the cost issue is almost certainly causing inmates whose desire for communication is entirely innocent-- to talk to family, friends, etc. -- to end-run the system and pursue the same means of communication (illicit cellphones) that inmates whose communications are more nefarious want. In effect, the high price of 'legitimate' communications pushes everyone into the black market.

It's stupid and counterproductive, especially considering that voice telephony is dirt cheap these days. It would probably cost less than a few extortionate collect calls to provide free long-distance calling for an entire prison population, even figuring in the cost of lawful-intercept capability.

It strikes me as an absolutely clear case of corruption causing a systemic failure.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:40 PM on February 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


Someone's profiting by exploiting poor and desperate people? No way.

The system is fucked. It's cruel and deeply inhumane and shameful. And yes, before someone comes along to make this point, some people do need to be locked up for the criminal shit they've done. But having done criminal shit should not make it okay for society to treat them - not to mention their unconvicted-of-anything family members - in ways like this.
posted by rtha at 12:51 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


And even if it were okay to treat criminals like this -- punishing them by making it impossible to be in contact with non-prisoners, extortionate pricing for calls, etc -- because it was considered part of the sentence, it would be a really bad idea. Most people in prison are going to get out. It's a good idea to have them able to live as part of society when they do.
posted by jeather at 1:11 PM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


They should turn to the private sector for lower-cost alternatives. Privatization has done wonders for the US prison system, this would surely be no exception.
posted by Hoopo at 1:16 PM on February 9, 2012 [3 favorites]


Well, yeah. There are well-publicized accounts of people remaining in control of gangs from prison. Monitoring phone calls seems pretty obvious.

So? ANY communication with the outside world could allow for signals to be received and decoded by gang members, you absolutely don't need to have a phone for that. Since it's easily possible through other means (coded messages through visitors, for instance), eavesdropping on private phone conversations is unnecessary. But it's easy to document phone calls, but it's impossible to document coded messages.

You are just throwing up another of the thousand little justifications for the shitty status quo simply because X group might do something BAD were it otherwise. Of course they MIGHT. Anything can be used for ill ends if enough thought were put into it. And since these are prisoners already in jail presumably (but often not really) for violent crimes, this logic could easily extend to anything at all one personally doesn't want them to have.
posted by JHarris at 1:31 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Obligatory American Gods quote.
posted by ErikaB at 1:34 PM on February 9, 2012



Maybe high prices lead to mobile phones in part, but I think mostly it's got to be driven by the inmates' desire for secrecy. They "randomly" monitor land-line phone calls in and out of prisons.


Let's also not forget that cell phones are being used because you can take incoming calls, and receive text messages. You can also use a cell phone whenever you want. This is particularly nice, I imagine if you want to talk to your kids or partner late at night while everything is quiet and creepy.
posted by shushufindi at 1:43 PM on February 9, 2012


Most people in prison are going to get out.

I'm sure that is viewed as a defect and is being worked on in some quarters.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:44 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


My cousin is in prison. She did something dumb and got caught. She calls my mom collect when she can, a couple times a week. Why does she call her aunt, who she's not particularly close to? Because my mom is the only one in the family who has a landline. The cost to call her dad or mom or her boyfriend (and their 2 year old son) is outrageous and requires a complicated process of putting money on their cellphones before she calls.

There are many sad and infuriating things about my cousin's situation, but the fact that she can't call her little boy every day to tell him how much she loves and misses him is the worst for her and for him.
posted by hydropsyche at 1:49 PM on February 9, 2012 [8 favorites]


So? ANY communication with the outside world could allow for signals to be received and decoded by gang members, you absolutely don't need to have a phone for that. Since it's easily possible through other means (coded messages through visitors, for instance), eavesdropping on private phone conversations is unnecessary.

It's possible, but nowhere near as easily as it is via the phone; in addition to the informational overhead that any encoding scheme would impose, many criminals are poor at planning and may not have have thought to set up a secure, efficient, and fully memorable system for exchange of coded messages prior to their incarceration, which makes things more difficult. You don't have an expectation of privacy in prison, because you're in prison, and that's highly unlikely to change even if we make major penal reforms and drastically cut our incarceration rate (which we should). The state has a clear and easily articulable interest in inhibiting the conduct of criminal activity from inside prison, and there is abundant evidence that if professional criminals do that sort of thing if given the opportunity.

The immediate humanitarian problem here is the absurdly and unnecessarily high cost of phone service for people who are poor, and who find it very difficult to communicate with the outside world even if they are OK with being monitored - which is why the initiation of this GAO study is a very good thing. Non-violent or petty criminals who ant to have conversations for non-criminal purposes deserve the opportunity to do so without being gouged or desocialized. Addressing their needs is a good idea, both on principle and pragmatically, and can be done without simply abandoning any regulation of communication at all.

I'm very much in support of prisoner's rights and penal reform, but some people go to prison because they do horrendously wicked things, and witness intimidation and criminal enterprise are genuine problems. It's not an either/or thing.
posted by anigbrowl at 1:58 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh, yeah, the other kicker in this: many of the person I know's friends are themselves pretty vulnerable, since being young, poor trans women of color is really, really hard - employers discriminate on multiple axes, and that means no regular income which means no regular housing...which means no landline. Which means cell phones only and extra charges to talk to the person in prison. Not to mention all the "how can I make rent this month" horrible stuff.
posted by Frowner at 2:00 PM on February 9, 2012


There are well-publicized accounts of people remaining in control of gangs from prison.

They are well publicized by the people who decide what they want you to know and editorialized to support their position. They also use the most inflammatory situations to bolster their reasons and prey on a public that doesn't like to get their hands dirty. If those same accounts were in the form of an FPP here on the blue, they would probably get flagged up the wazoo and deleted.

Which is not to say that the "behind the walls kingpin running street ops" doesn't happen. Howevver, we really do not know the real extent of of it as the story is only told from one side and everyone, no matter what their situation, is painted as doing something horrible like ordering gang hits as opposed to just, say, wishing their kid a happy birthday.

There are prisoners have done bad things to whatever degree. There are also people who should not be there at all. And there are a whole lot of people who screwed up, are paying the price, but are just trying to get through their sentence with a little btg of human dignity and not necessarily contributing to the crime rate on the outside.

But telling those stories doesn't sell advertising time slots on MSNBC or Fox. Put a reporter into the mix looking for a byline and every person on the inside is Al Capone and all of suburbia is going to die.
posted by lampshade at 2:04 PM on February 9, 2012 [9 favorites]


btg=bit
posted by lampshade at 2:08 PM on February 9, 2012


Last year I read Orange is the New Black, a book about Piper Kerman's stay in a Federal minimum security women's facility, and it was eye-opening. One thing she talks about is the canteen/prison shopping system. The stock was sometimes unreliable, but it would be nice if they could have calling cards available for the prisoners so they didn't have to call people collect and could call cell phones. She mentioned having an approved contact list, as in her prison counselor had to approve the people on it, so that could be a tool to help deter illicit activities but keep prisoners in touch with their families. I'll bet a cheaper (for both prison and prisoner) system could be set up that still allowed for constant or random monitoring.
posted by soelo at 2:09 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are prisoners have done bad things to whatever degree. There are also people who should not be there at all. And there are a whole lot of people who screwed up, are paying the price, but are just trying to get through their sentence with a little btg of human dignity and not necessarily contributing to the crime rate on the outside.

I think this is really important, not least because the more you dehumanize and fuck with people who committed petty crimes, the more you push them into desperation and criminality once they return to regular life.

People have been running organized crime and gangs from inside prisons pretty much as long as there has been organized crime, long before cell phones or even regular phones - it's pretty well documented. The people who run gangs are smart, even if they're not educated or particularly appealing individuals. And they're good at working the angles. That's why, for example, there are lots of drugs available in many prisons.

See, this is why I think prisons are generally a bad idea. (Let's leave aside the problem of people who are actually physically dangerous, or do really awful things on purpose....figuring out how to handle that is a separate issue.) You take people who basically are just average human beings - a mixture of good and bad impulses, people who have families and kids and are loved in at least one aspect of their lives - and you stick them in this horrible environment where they are bored, humiliated, assaulted and where they have to develop counterproductive behaviors just to survive. Plus where there is a LOT of despair AND a LOT of drugs - you can always get drugs in prison, I have it on good authority from people I know. And these regular people are around really awful people who have done really awful things and want to continue doing really awful things.

And then you turn them loose, and they can't get jobs and they have all these terrible habits and survival strategies, and they've missed all this time with their families...And what do you expect? Plus they're probably right back into the same poverty and problems that were there when they went to jail.

This is why I really, really believe in some kind of intense, focused restorative justice model wherever possible. If we spent the money we spend on prisons on running good, serious restorative justice programs and on drug rehab and some kind of education program, we would be a much happier society.
posted by Frowner at 2:29 PM on February 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


If we spent the money we spend on prisons on running good, serious restorative justice programs and on drug rehab and some kind of education program, we would be a much happier society.

Don't be silly. Who's going to make any money out of that?
posted by steambadger at 2:45 PM on February 9, 2012


Matthew 25:40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Yet more evidence that American Christians absolutely hate and despise Jesus.
posted by Davenhill at 2:54 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


They should put more people in jail so that the carriers can give a volume discount. Everybody wins.
posted by dobie at 3:15 PM on February 9, 2012


How do they do things somewhere more enlightened like Scandinavia? Do prisoners have access to telephones, and on what terms?
posted by acb at 3:21 PM on February 9, 2012


There are well-publicized accounts of people remaining in control of gangs from prison.

They are well publicized by the people who decide what they want you to know and editorialized to support their position.


The inmates I've talked to at San Quentin (a California state penitentiary) have told me that guards are the principal smugglers of cell phones (and most other things). I have never heard the potato gun system. Probably the success rate of potato guns depends on the layout of the particular prison. Therefore guards (and their union) have no incentive to work towards a more equitable system for phone calls.

That's not every guard of course, though one guard turning another one in is about as likely as a police officer doing so.

I have heard guards complain that having so many cell phones in the hands of prisoners means inmates they can organize riots and coordinate any number of diversions much for effectively than they could in the past.

The phone call system is just one of many many ways the prison screws over the families of inmates. Just as a tiny example of their contempt: I go in once a week, if that, and as often as not there's some poor wife or friend waiting for their loved one to be released. They tell the family that releast will be at 5:30am and at 8 PM, when I'm done, they're still waiting. There is no food, no restaurants within a few miles (and most are too poor for restaurants anyway.) The only amenities are a bathroom, a drinking fountain, and a crappy candy bar vending machine. It's cold. It's windy. It's dark. And they're outside all day long, IF they decide to release the person that day afterall. (If not, I'm guessing they spend the night in their car, since it's rare they live within a few hours of the prison.)

Also, apparently San Quentin is one of the most desireable prisons because it's so close to an urban area, and therefore volunteer-run programs (like ours) and a bus system. Many of the other prisons are in the remote desert.
posted by small_ruminant at 3:46 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Maybe high prices lead to mobile phones in part, but I think mostly it's got to be driven by the inmates' desire for secrecy. They "randomly" monitor land-line phone calls in and out of prisons.

Frowner nailed part of it. It's not about secrecy, it's about privacy - big difference.

I was in jail in Bowling Green Kentucky (which is a private-for-profit jail) for about four months (and deserved to be BTW) and we had between 10 and 14 people in our pod and there was one guy who had a cell phone and charger. I don't know how he got it in there but he only ever used when talking about his case to friends and family. His circumstances for being in there were fucked up in that he had been convicted of some drug related crime and been giving such a harsh sentence that the case was overturned by the Kentucky Supreme Court and he was released. Naturally he was re-arrested within a couple of days and was being held, seemingly indefinitely, on the charge of bail jumping from his original arrest. They were holding him, presumably, to try to find more evidence to retry him on some new charge since their first case was overturned. Anyway, he did not trust talking on the phones in our pod about his case for understandable reasons.

But, to the point of the post, the price of a phone call was outrageous. My family had to buy minutes in $50 blocks, which was good for about 3 20-minute calls. What sucked about it was that lets say I called and was on the phone for 1 minute and we had a new inmate coming in the cell, at which time they cut off the phone, I would be charged for a full 20 minute call. It happened all of the time. We could make collect calls as well, at the cost of nearly $3 a minute plus like $2.95 connection fee or something like that. In a way, I looked at it as, well, I fucked up so that's the price I pay, but really it is extremely unfair, particularly considering the economic situation of those in prison/jail.

BTW, my buddy with the cell phone got released a few months after me and has been free of harassment for a couple of years. Also, if you want to talk about a real injustice, packs of Ramen were like $1.50 from commissary
posted by holdkris99 at 3:47 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well, when you lose your right to vote, government kind of just stops caring about you.

Hence TARP, ACTA, PIPA, SOPA and things like H.R. 3674
posted by rough ashlar at 3:56 PM on February 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


One use that jails and prisons have for monitoring phone calls (they also read postal mail in and out of jail) I've seen is some criminals admit to criminal activity in their calls. I happened to catch a call from a woman in jail awaiting trial for putting a hit out on her husband pretty much tell her husband that he should tell them that it was all an attempt to get on an a reality TV show. The prosecution used this tape to show how the defense's strategy of saying it was just a reality TV show audition was bullshit. The WTF response from the husband was pretty clear she had just made up the idea while in jail.

As I said in the other thread about the jailhouse phones, I'm all for making phone calls cheaper/free whether to get bailed out or for long term prisoners. With VOIP the actual costs of calls can round down to zero having the current process of kickbacks is borderline criminal. Prison isn't supposed to be fun, but it also isn't supposed to be a profit center for the concessionaires.

I'm on the fence about whether the current practice of recording the calls/reading the mail should continue. I think people should have a right to privacy even when incarcerated. But not everyone in the joint is really a good person that got in a bad situation. Some prisoners are in jail because they deserved it and are bad people. I'm not sure how we can have it both ways.

I'm against allowing cellphones because how would you regulate that? Can I bring my iPhone or just a dumb phone that can make calls. Or would I have to get a $200 prison-issue dumb phone with $2/minute airtime? And what if someone steals or I'm coerced to allow someone to use my phone? That seems like a giant mess. Allowing prisoners more privacy on the landlines inside the would be the better way to go on that regard.
posted by birdherder at 4:17 PM on February 9, 2012


I don't know anyone in favor of allowing cell phones.

I don't even mind the phone call monitoring.

I do mind the exploitation of an inmate's family and the general disincentive to stay attached to the very people who might inspire you to keep your nose clean so that you can stay healthy, possibly learn some skills, and generally aim for a quicker release and a functional post-release life.
posted by small_ruminant at 4:24 PM on February 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


...guards are the principal smugglers of cell phones...

And every time something gets banned, something else to smuggle in and make a profit from. Gum, cigarettes, Texas Pete...

And what small_ruminant just said.
posted by marxchivist at 8:25 PM on February 9, 2012


So if a substantial amount of criminal activity is discovered via evesdropping on prison phone calls, then there seems to be an easy way to convince lawmakers to change the system.

Just tell them that by reducing the calls to cheap rates or even free, then there will be a lot more outgoing calls, thus increasing the opportunities for surveillance and discovering new nefarious schemes afoot. Seems like the way prisoner rights groups should market this.
posted by honestcoyote at 8:40 PM on February 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


How do they do things somewhere more enlightened like Scandinavia? Do prisoners have access to telephones, and on what terms?

The ones I've seen brought up before are Bastoy and Halden (previously on Metafilter) However, Deutsche Welle's feature on European prisons notes that Bastoy is the exception, even within Norway, which does have more conventional prisons as well.

The Guardian says this about telecommunications in Norwegian prisons, in an article about a visit to a more normal one:
"Every prisoner here has a computer in the classroom," [Leif] says, "and a computer in their cell."
...
Leif tells me that there are 80 prisoners in Skien. In the whole of Norway there are just over 3,000 prisoners, out of the country's population of around 4m. "I don't suppose the prisoners have access to the internet," I say. Leif looks at me. "But of course," he says. And in their cells? "Yes."

Leif explains that firewalls have been set up to ensure security is maintained. "But they must be able to access the internet," he says, "to help in their education and also so that they know they are still connected to the world."
posted by frimble at 8:50 PM on February 9, 2012 [5 favorites]


My 15 minute collect call from jail cost almost $100. This exploits the poorest and most downtrodden at a very low point in their lives.
posted by N0TALLTHERE at 10:33 AM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]


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