How Parents in Prison Lose Their Kids Because They Can't Afford to Call Home


Earlier this year, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) declared "the era of unreasonable and unjust" prison phone call costs over.

The declaration came after the regulatory body's new rate caps went into effect for interstate phone calls made from federal, state, and local correctional facilities. 

So, why are prison phone calls so expensive?

Well, according to a survey of prison phone contracts by Prison Legal News, it's because contracts go to the highest bidder—not the lowest.

An exhaustive analysis of prison phone contracts nationwide has revealed that with only limited exceptions, telephone service providers offer lucrative kickbacks (politely termed "commissions") to state contracting agencies – amounting on average to 42% of gross revenues from prisoners'phone calls – in order to obtain exclusive, monopolistic contracts for prison phone services….

This is because prison phone companies don't "compete" in the usual sense. They don't have to offer lower phone rates to match those of their competitors, as prison phone contracts typically are based on the highest commission paid, not the lowest phone rates. Free market competition is thus largely absent in the prison phone industry, at least from the perspective of the consumer – mainly prisoners' families.

While the FCC has imposed price caps on interstate prison calls, it is still mulling over what it can do to reform how states' price their local prison phone calls.

Last month MEY Legal Services, "a non-profit law firm that provides free civil legal assistance to New York City's poorest communities," sent a letter to the FCC about how the high cost of prison visits and phone calls not only provide a hardship to poorer families but—due to some state laws—can result in the termination of parental rights.

Under New York law, "a parent who fails to visit or communicate with his or her child or designated caregiver for six months is deemed to have forfeited his or her parental rights," according to the letter. That obligation does not change when a parent is sent to prison and, in fact, incarcerated parents "bear the burden of convincing a judge that they were unable to communicate with their children or provide financial assistance while in prison."

This pertains mostly to parents in prison for non-violent offences, as generally someone convicted of a violent crime will immediately lose their parental rights.

The number of parents in prison has also increased at disturbing rate; the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. (You can thank the war on drugs for that.)

Since 1991, the number of children with a mother in prison has more than doubled, up 131%. The number of children with a father in prison has grown by 77%. This finding reflects a faster rate of growth in the number of mothers held in state and federal prisons (up 122%), compared to the number of fathers (up 76%) between 1991 and midyear 2007.

Losing a parent to the prison system can be devastating to a child but maintaining family contact during a parent's incarceration can be beneficial for both parties. 

Crony capitalism and bad laws shouldn't make it so that the high price of a simple phone call winds up costing a parent their child.