The Price of Communicating From Behind Bars
The Price of Communicating From Behind Bars
The Price of Communicating From Behind Bars

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    Staying connected with loved ones
    behind bars is an expense that many families struggle with today.  Aside from exorbitant phone
    charged by private companies who provide phone services to prisons,
    families are also charged excessive amounts for money transfers and Email.

    the correctional facility that a prisoner is sent to happens to be privately
    run, chances are the company in charge has figured out a way to turn a profit
    off any transactions between that prisoner and their loved ones. It is because
    of the high costs within those facilities that organizations advocate for
    regulation within the prison communication system in order provide relief for
    families. Policy makers need to ensure correctional facilities negotiate
    reasonable rates for all communication services provided by private companies.

    The type of facility a prisoner is
    sent to – whether publicly or privately run- can have significant impact on the
    financial burden families can expect to bear. The types of services offered to
    inmates can vary depending on whether they are held in a federal or state
    facility, maximum or minimum security and publically or privately run.

    In a publicly run federal facility,
    inmates have access to an electronic message system run by the Federal Bureau
    of Prisons called TRULINCS. For .05 a minute, inmates can use a computer to
    send electronic messages to approved recipients, which are then reviewed by
    correctional staff and forwarded to a 3rd party site. From there,
    recipients can log on to review messages and respond. Inmates pay for this
    service by accessing their inmate trust fund account. 

    Inmate trust fund accounts are
    managed through funds collected from commissary purchases, telephone fees and
    usage fees. Traditionally families of prisoners are able to make deposits into
    these accounts by mailing money orders for just the price of a stamp or by using
    the Western Union Quick Collect Program. The money deposited into these
    accounts can be used for discretionary spending such phone calls, commissary
    purchases, family visiting expenses and restitution payments. The process and
    cost of managing paper mail deposits can often lead prisons to outsource these
    services to private companies who advertise speed and efficiency and additional
    services- for a cost.

    According to the Prison
    Policy Initiative
    , approximately 6.1% of state prisoners are held in
    privately run prisons, and along with 11.9% of federal prisoners. Often times,
    public prison systems will contract out communication and money transfer
    services to private companies that charge up to .44 an email and as much as
    $12.95 for an electronic fund transfer [EFT].

    To use the private EFT service to
    send money to a loved one serving in the State of Florida’s DeSoto
    , a person would be charged $11.95 for an electronic transfer amount
    between $200 and $300 online, $12.95 by phone. This rate is incredible and stings
    struggling families who are forced to use these methods as opposed to simply
    sending money orders.          

    in many cases, this is the only option
    for people who have loved ones in contracted facilities. These companies often
    times provide services many people might consider privileged. Video messages
    that can be received at kiosks in select facilities, and MP3 or JP3
    correction-approved music player for $39.99 can also be purchased.

    In today’s day and age, it would be
    hard to argue that access to email is a privilege. Many jobs require online
    applications; employers contact applicants via email and educational
    institutions assign students with school account to ensure they can be informed
    of important updates.

    To communicate with a loved one via
    the email service offered by a private company in the State of Indiana’s Edinburgh
    you would, at the minimum, need to purchase a “booklet” of ten
    electronic stamps for $4.00.  These
    services then deliver copies of emails to inmates, scan and return written
    replies. On the surface, when compared to the average price of a regular
    postage stamp which has an average cost of about .44, this price might seem
    logical- except email services are free. Compare your free Gmail account to the
    $25 annual charge by one company to have an account which receives scanned
    letters from prison and charges $1 for every 3 pages.  

    put it plainly, family members of inmates must pay exorbitant rates to send
    money to loved ones behind bars, and those loved ones must pay additional fees
    from that money to stay connected with those family members. Companies have
    created a successful business model off of the desire of families to stay
    connected. Fortunately, advocacy organizations have stepped in to open up
    alternative communication options.

    the Bars
    , is a joint effort of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s
    Center for Civic Media and the Media Lab. This open source web platform
    collects letters from inmates and posts them online as blogs at no charge thanks
    to volunteers. Its ultimate goal is have others join the effort of collecting
    and reposting letters in order to make this a sustainable effort, extending the
    service to the hundreds of inmates on its waiting list. 

    Social media sites have also become
    an effective tool for story telling by organizations like Thousand Kites, whose campaign that
    uses community radio to tell stories from inmates and relay messages from loved
    ones. Like this you-tube
    that relays the heart-breaking story of people struggling to stay
    connected with loved ones because of high phone rates. The Last Mile program in San Quentin
    California selects prisoners to partner with the Silicon Valley Technology
    sector in order to foster a successful transition into the outside world. The
    Last Mile offers weekly “tweet sheets” to participants on which they write
    tweets that are later posted online by volunteers, giving a public voice to
    participants and familiarizing them with social media.

    Ensuring that prisoners become
    technologically savvy and remain connected with their families’ benefits
    society, reducing the chance they will re-offend and return to the system. While
    the work of all these organizations is important and admirable, it is important
    to realize they serve as band-aids for a broken system. In order to help
    alleviate the burden on families of prisoners, public officials need to push
    for federal and local reforms-without loopholes.