Colorado prisons' high phone charges invite scrutiny
It’s a well-known fact that prison inmates with strong family and community ties are less likely to wind up back inside the joint once they are released.
So why are state prison systems, including Colorado’s, charging inmates high rates for phone calls, rates that discourage prisoners’ often frayed home attachments?
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Hassan Latif spent 18 years in Colorado prisons.
“My first few years inside, all I thought about was escaping,” he says. “I got high in the county jail. Even if I got out, I didn’t see options. I saw myself as prey.”
Released in 2006, he’s now a case manager at Turnabout, a Denver nonprofit that provides assistance to returning inmates — 5,000 of them in 2010.
This April Hassan and Turnabout’s director, the Rev. Tina Yankee, spent two days teaching ethics classes at Metropolitan State College of Denver — a surprising undertaking for a man who, his wife says, “always felt he was going to go down in a hail of bullets.”
Imani Latif met Hassan in New York City when both worked for the Department of Health.
“He was my best friend,” she says. “I fell in love with him, but he was engaged to someone else.”
They married other people. She had a son. He moved to Colorado. Her marriage ended. When Hassan’s former wife wrote to Imani saying, “I’m leaving him. He’s in prison,” the two picked up where they left off.
She moved to Colorado and they married in 1992.
“My wife stayed with me for 18 years inside, and if not for that support I wouldn’t be talking to you now,” Hassan says.
“My perception of his life was different than his,” she says.
They wrote letters. Imani drove two hours each way to visit. An AIDS counselor, she couldn’t afford prison call costs, but Hassan got a “high-paying” job, $150 a month, in a prison print shop and phoned her once a week.
“It was cheaper back then,” he says. “She told me I was a good person, I could go back to school, have a life,” Hassan explains. “That seemed far-fetched, but the chance to go to that visiting room and see her made me walk away from trouble.”
Imani is now the founding director of It Takes A Village, a nonprofit that addresses health issues among people of color.
Hassan thinks prison phone-call costs in Colorado are “prohibitive.” Add in the difficulties of visits, he says, and “it appears they don’t want families to be together. It’s something deliberate.”
He suspects that call profits go to wealthy owners of the phone companies.
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“Studies show family contact helps motivate prisoners to do well and complete programs,” says Margaret diZerega, director of the Family Justice Program at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York City. “An outlet to talk about frustrations lowers violence, and inmates with family support have fewer parole violations and less homelessness.”
Charlie Sullivan is director of international CURE (Citizens United for Rehabilitation for Errants) in Washington, D.C., a prison reform group. He says inmate phone calls to families are “rehabilitative opportunities” easily scotched by “exorbitant” costs. A Vera Institute report labels such costs “a tax on poor families,” penny wise and pound foolish.
Families complement or substitute for public programs, especially when prisoners get back out, so “it doesn’t make economic sense to put barriers in place,” diZerega explains. Barriers to contact include the cost of phone calls, driving from a distance, child care costs and time off work.
And both the American Correctional Association and the American Bar Association have policy statements supporting low-cost inmate phone access.
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Taxpayers don’t pay for prison phone calls. Inmates and their families do.
You can’t call an inmate. The inmate calls you from a public phone in a cellblock, but only if you’re on a pre-approved list. An automated voice tells you the call is from a particular prisoner and asks if you want to accept it. Calls are limited to 20 minutes.
One reason rates for calls are high is that prisons pay for specialized phone equipment and security costs.
However, if a state corrections department adds a surcharge to each call — and all but eight do — or hikes up the charge for each minute, or both, the resulting rates generate large profits. These profits, or “commissions,” usually go back into corrections budgets.
Commissions have been called “kickbacks,” but courts have repeatedly ruled them legal.
Last April, Prison Legal News (PLN), a national monthly based in Vermont, published a groundbreaking 50-state study of prison phone contracts. It detailed the millions of dollars in profits states extract from prisoner phone use. The national total came to $152.44 million in 2007-08, PLN said.
The PLN state survey also showed that Colorado prisons had, and still have, the highest rate in the United States for local collect calls — $7.35 for 20 minutes.
According to PLN, Colorado’s 2007-08 commissions came to $3.1 million. That was $2.6 million net.
Current inmate phone use is providing Colorado corrections with $2.024 million net in commissions, DOC says.
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“I was born in Denver,” says Don Walker, “and I have a lot of family here, mostly incarcerated.”
A repeat offender finally sentenced to 16 years on drug charges, he did time with his own dad: “He was my cellie. They’ll put you with a family member if you’re both inside because people will stay out of trouble if they’re in a cell with an older brother, an uncle.” *(Click the title to read the rest of the article)