Massachusetts Poised To Make Calls Free For Prison Inmates And Families

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from the fixing-a-broken-systems dept

Massachusetts is now poised to make calls for prison inmates and their families free. The decision comes after decades where the government’s coddling of prison telecom monopolies resulted in inmate families being charged an arm and a leg simply to chat briefly with their incarcerated loved ones.

According to Bolts, the reforms are part of the state’s latest budget plan, and will also limit commissary markups in all jails and prisons to 3 percent above an item’s purchase price. It’s a big deal for inmate families who have historically been ripped off and ignored by the federal government:

Gosselin says she’s spent about $5,000 just to talk with Syrelle since the start of their relationship, and roughly the same amount on purchases for him at the prison commissary: an extension cord, a small television, chicken, vegetables, medicated protein shakes.

“I go broke, literally. I make my bank account negative,” Gosselin told Bolts. “I don’t do much for myself; I just do for him. My mom and everybody always tells me, ‘You can’t keep making sacrifices for your relationship.’ But who else is going to do it?”

Massachusetts decision comes on the heels of similar decisions in Connecticut, California, Colorado, and Minnesota (though only CT and MA will also make email, video, and VoIP calls free). Massachusetts will pay for the services out of a $20 million state trust fund built specifically to cover those costs. It’s another example where states are acting after decades of grotesque federal corruption and apathy.

Prison phone telecoms like Securus have long enjoyed a cozy, government-supported monopoly over prison phone and teleconferencing services. Like any monopoly, this has consistently resulted in not only sky high rates upwards of $20 per minute for phone calls, but comically poor service as well. Landmark efforts to actually do something about it were dismantled by the Trump FCC.

Such interstate inmate calling service (ICS) companies effectively buy their privileged positions from local governments, who then expect some favors in return. For example, Securus was accused of routinely spying on privileged inmate attorney communications, information that was only revealed after Securus was hacked in late 2015.

Given the generalized apathy for prison inmates and their families (“If you don’t like it, don’t go to prison”), reform on this front has been glacial at best. And while Congress did recently pass a law ensuring the FCC has the authority to make prison calling services more affordable, the agency’s fecklessness when it comes to truly standing up to industry has also meant relief and reform have been slow to arrive.

So like numerous other telecom reform issues (privacy, net neutrality), a handful of states are doing the heavy lifting themselves; a huge win for a reform movement decades in the making.

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