OLYMPIA, Wash. - Calling Mom on Mother's Day can be an expensive proposition if you're in prison. In Washington, people who are incarcerated pay a service charge from $3.50 to $4.95 per call, and another 89 cents per minute.
That's even higher than in Massachusetts, where advocates are challenging the prison phone rates, saying they create additional burdens for families trying to provide support for incarcerated loved ones. Attorney Lee Petro, an expert on prison telephone service contracts, says the prisons strike deals with service providers that include commissions or "kickbacks" to state and county governments.
"In states where there are preexisting contracts that involve commissions that are being paid to the local governments or state governments, a 15-minute phone call can cost more than $20."
In Washington, the average inmate spends about $50 a month on phone calls. The state Corrections Department says the phone contract commissions are put in what's called the Offender Welfare Betterment Account, which it says is used for family-friendly activities, TV systems, buying law library books, and unspecified capital projects.
Steven Renderos with the Center for Media Justice is an organizer of a Mother's Day of Action today. On the website PhoneJustice.org
, his group is collecting stories about prisoners and families affected by the high-cost phone calls.
"It's an opportunity to elevate stories from families, from people who have loved ones behind bars. And we're going to send those stories directly to the FCC, because the Federal Communications Commission has a direct role to play in addressing the rates of phone calls within prisons."
Washington's contract is with a subsidiary of Global Tel-Link, an Alabama company that is the nation's largest prison phone service provider. Historically, the higher costs have been rationalized by the need to monitor jailhouse calls. Critics of the contract system say technology has brought those costs down, but inmates and their families continue to pay higher prices to stay in touch.