The Cost to Connect

Marisa Endicott

A grandfather accompanying his grandson to a doctor’s appointment is not so unusual unless that man is along via a video stream from his prison cell.

Thanks to a contraband cell phone, this California inmate sees and talks to his family on a near daily basis. Despite the high costs of procurement and the risks of being caught, this incarcerated man and many others continue to smuggle in or purchase contraband phones in order to communicate not only through calls and texts, but also images, videos and livestreams.

Along with the continuing demand for contraband phones come persistent efforts to crack down on them. And the cell phones aren’t the only tools that have become more technologically sophisticated.

In 2016, CDCR started rolling out a new program in California state prisons to intercept cell phones. This originally included close to 1,000 advanced metal detectors, scanners and security cameras at a projected cost of $17 million a year, according to the Associated Press. In December 2017, the company funding the whole contraband cell crackdown effort won an award for its phone detection technology. That company is Global TelLink (GTL), a major nationwide prison telephone service provider.

Private prison telephone service providers like GTL are notorious for the expensive rates they charge to prisoners and their loved ones to communicate.

High fees per minute are accompanied by additional charges. For example, GTL has required users to set up prepaid accounts while also charging them to open or close them. In 2016, attorneys sued several California counties over excessive fees for calls to and from jails. Since the counties contract with private companies, the latter can charge whatever price they want and pay the county handsomely for the contract, according to the lawsuit. Revenue from phone systems are supposed to be dedicated to a fund for prisoner education and rehabilitation services under state law, but the suit argued that a large portion of collected funds was going to jail maintenance instead. The counties in at least three of the cases contract with GTL. Moreover, in March 2017, GTL agreed to pay almost $9 million to settle a federal lawsuit that accused the company of violating the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

Here is where the contraband phones come into play. One of the many motivations to seek out an illegal device in prison is to avoid paying the exorbitant costs associated with sanctioned channels of communication, costs that many incarcerated individuals cannot afford to pay. GTL has a clear incentive to help prisons crackdown on illegal phones, especially if inmates and their networks use them to avoid paying the company’s steep fees. “What's problematic is GTL has fought for the longest time the efforts that have been made nationally to reduce the rates that are charged both out of state and in state,” said Corene Kendrick, an attorney at Prison Law Office. “There's a long campaign with the Federal Communications Commission to try to get a cap on the fees.” In 2015, GTL and another mega prison phone company, Securus Technologies, sued the FCC for attempting to cap their fees, and a court ruling in June 2017 barred the FCC from limiting costs.

Having access to consistent communication has psychological and practical impacts on prisoners, their friends and families. “It allows the prisoner to reconnect with one’s family (children, parents, spouses, etc….),” one prisoner wrote in a letter to California Prison Focus. “This core pertinent social development when cultivated by family, prisoner, CDCR, supports a positive productive mentality and behavior that further extends to the community and beyond.”

In-person visits may not always be an option. Visitors often cannot consistently or frequently make the trips out to remote facilities or take time off from work or other responsibilities, especially if the prisoner has been transferred out-of-state because of overcrowding in California prisons. For this and other reasons, phone communication is an essential part of the picture.

Consequences for having a contraband phone or accessories are no joke. Inmates can face 90 days loss of good time credit, time added to sentences and other punishments. Those caught smuggling cell phones to inmates can be fined $5,000 and face up to six months in jail, according to CDCR. One prisoner told California Prison Focus in a letter that GTL has supported and encouraged other damaging punitive measures as well like suspending family visits.

Moreover, being caught with a cell phone can negatively affect or even destroy one’s chances at being paroled. At the same time, parole will often only be granted to those who have a support system waiting for them on the outside - a setup that requires consistent communication during one’s sentence.

Out of desperation, inmates may be willing to risk the ramifications. “If you've talked to people who are currently incarcerated or formerly incarcerated,” Kendrick said, “they're kind of like, ‘well that's the trade off - the risk of getting caught versus being able to talk to my family.’”

As an attorney for prisoners, Kendrick has frank discussions with inmates. While CDCR says a major concern with contraband phones is gangs using them to organize, that isn’t what she generally encounters. The more common response is “it's the only way they can stay in touch with their family, because they can't afford the exorbitant rates that the phone companies get away with charging them,” she said.

The fostering and maintenance of relationships between inmates and their outside networks can not only be important for personal growth and healing but for successful reentry into society upon release.

“The isolation that prisoners feel is so real,” Kendrick said. “There's been studies that have shown that one of the factors that plays into whether a person's going to succeed upon reentry into the community is whether they've been able to maintain those community ties and they have a community to go back to.”

Making sure inmates have reliable and affordable access to calling could be one way to cut back on at least some contraband phone use and have larger benefits for the individual, CDCR and the community at large.

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