Wednesday, November 27, 2019

A Captured Market

There is another controversy concerning phone calls other than Trump's one to Ukraine.

Prisons and jails throughout the US continue to charge exorbitant rates and fees for family members to speak with loved ones in prisons and jails.

The United States has a $1.2bn prison phone industry, an industry that prison reform advocates have been trying – and failing – to fix for years and that the Federal Communications Commission head, Mignon Clyburne, called “the greatest, most distressing, type of injustice I have ever seen in the communications sector”.

Two companies, Securus and GTL, control more than 70% of the market for prison calls. These companies have won contracts across the US by awarding kickbacks and commissions to jail and prison facilities, and boosted profits by adding consumer fees and including extra services into phone contracts.

New York City and San Francisco made phone calls from local jails free this year, the first major cities in the US to do so. Statewide bills to make phone calls in prisons and jails free have been proposed in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

But progress at the federal level to reduce prison phone call rates were rolled back under the Trump administration as the FCC commissioner, Ajit Pai, directed FCC lawyers to stop defending caps on call rates approved by the agency in 2015 under Obama from a legal challenge filed by the prison phone industry.
Wisconsin’s jails and prisons charge among some of the highest phone rates in the US. A national survey published in February 2019 by the Prison Policy Initiative found that, in 2018, the highest cost of a 15-minute in-state jail phone call in Wisconsin was $21.97 (£17.12), the third most expensive rate in the country. The average cost of an in-state jail 15-minute phone call in Wisconsin was $7.99 (£6.23), the sixth-highest in the US. These rates are often compounded with extra fees for family members to open and maintain accounts.

“The burden placed on families is outrageous and cruel that folks are having to pay this amount of money to speak with their loved ones in order to maintain contact with their family,” said Sean Wilson, a statewide organizer with ACLU-Wisconsin who spent 17 years in Wisconsin’s prison system.
In Missouri, a 15-minute phone call from a jail can cost over $20, and these costs are part of difficult conditions reported at St Louis medium security institution, referred to as the Workhouse, that activists have been pushing to have closed down.

“If you’re already there because you’re poor and can’t afford bail, the odds of you having someone on the outside who can make the trip to the Workhouse to put money on your account and being able to constantly add money is not realistic,” said Inez Bordeaux, manager of community collaborations with ArchCity Defenders, a St Louis-based legal advocacy organization. “The situation people are in is being exploited. There are people profiting off the pain and trauma of poor, mostly black people in this city.”

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