The Bottom Line in Prison, by Mike Powers

Keeping people in prison is an expensive proposition. I’ve seen varying numbers, usually depending on what point of view the providing party is trying to push, but I think the most reliable number is that it costs around $35,000 per year to keep one person incarcerated. That cost, how
ever, does NOT include the loss of that person’s productivity or the tax revenue lost when that person isn’t earning or spending money. With these considerations factored in, the cost of keeping a person incarcerated skyrockets.

I need to say up front that I’m okay with this. Perhaps you will agree, also, that incarcerating a person is something that SHOULD cost us money. This makes it an inherently negative proposition, and one that, as a member of a healthy society, I want to avoid as much as possible. Increasingly, however, prisons in modern America have become an industry unto themselves, and are even becoming a money-making venture, so much so that private companies have jumped into the incarceration “racket”, and a whole industry of related commerce has sprung up. This has greatly changed the complexion of prison-building as a government function to the point where communities actually compete to land the next, big prison contract. Who can forget the video made by the small town folks who sang to their legislatures, “Is you is, or is you isn’t, gonna give our town a prison?” Folks, the LAST thing any community should want is another prison built, whether it’s in their own back yard, or the one next door.

One of the related industries that has made a killing off of incarceration is the prison phone business. Recent statistics show that at least one in every one hundred U.S. citizens has spent at least one day in jail. That said,
 there are millions of men and women out there who can easily attest to the exhorbitant phone rates charged by the providers of county jail phone service. A 5-minute phone call regularly runs as much as $15.00. And while it would be easy for the more cynical to say, “do the crime, pay the dime,” therein lies the very problem. The prisoner is no longer a wage-earner, so it’s quite likely that he or she is not the one footing the bill. It will be the prisoner’s aging parents, or worse, the spouse already left to fend 
by themselves in the raising of their children. In the vast majority of cases, it will be someone who is already part of the welfare; state who incurs this new financial burden, and if you follow the money, it comes down to the fact that tax dollars dedicated to social services are being used
to pay outrageous phone rates for incarcerated loved ones. That is a most illogical transfer of wealth.

Things don’t improve much at the state prison level.
 The phone company that the TDCJ uses to maintain its recently acquired Offender Telephone System is Century Link. Their stock has done great in recent years, and no wonder. Let’s compare rates. How much are you paying for your out-of-state long distance? Chances are, you answered, “Nothing,” because free long distance is part of just about every phone service contract out there at this point. Century Link and the TDCJ didn’t get the memo. They charge 23¢ per minute for the out-of-state long distance phone rates from TDCJ prison units. Now, for in-state calls, the rate is even higher, even if the unit you’re living on happens to be in the same community where your family lives, this is 25¢ a minute.

That’s a LOT better than the county jail rip offs, but is still completely out of line with standard phone rates nation wide.
I’m NOT saying that our phone calls should be free. I realize that there is a cost to the infrastructure and technology necessary to keep the lines up and running. Those phones didn’t just materialize from thin air, and they need to be paid for somehow. Now, I’m doing some wild estimation here, but I promise you, I’m low-balling it. Let’s say that only ¾ of all of Texas’s 200,000 state prisoners make the standard, 20-minute phone call each day. (The phone only permits 20-minute calls, but you can instantly redial and reconnect, even to the same party.)

That’s 50,000 $5 phone calls each day, which comes to $250,000. Multiply that out, and you’re looking at $7.5 MILLION dollars a month, $90 MILLION dollars a year in revenue from the Texas state phone system alone… and that’s a low estimate. Now, think of all the county jail contracts and other state prison contracts this company owns, and you’re looking at a very profitable enterprise indeed. However, it’s not FREE enterprise, which is the kind our capitalistic hearts yearn most for. It, unfortunately, smacks of monopoly, for when we pick up the phones here, we have no choice at all about WHICH phone
 service to use, we can only choose whether or not we will
 use the phone at all. And remember, I’M not paying for these calls. I have no job and no source of income. When my parents were alive, they put money on my account to call them. Their income came from Social Security. That ultimately means that federal taxes paid for my phone calls, and I’m sure 
that my case is anything but atypical. For the vast majority of the incarcerated, it is the norm. That said, don’t you think it behooves us all to seek out a more equitable cost basis for these phone calls?

In eight years of Obama-nation, I’m hard-pressed to find much to celebrate of his policy and legacy initiatives. 
The ONE thing I was glad to hear about was that the FCC
 had stepped in and filed a federal law suit to bring the prison phone rates under a standard that would allow a maximum per-minute rate of 15¢. That, to me, seems like a very fair fate considering the services provided. Of course, the phone companies disagreed and fought the new rate in the courts. At the district level, they lost, and filed appeals. Inmates all over the country watched this case closely, and waited for over a year while the wheels of justice turned on the appeal. During that time, the U.S.A. had one of the bloodless revolutions that make our country so great, a presidential election. Donald Trump became our President, and folks, forgive me for saying, that was a very good thing in a lot of different ways. Not so good, however, for the phone rates in prisons.

Almost immediately after Trump took office, the FCC announced that they were no longer interested in prosecuting the case to lower the phone rates, and the matter expired with no change to the way phone companies could gouge the families of prisoners everywhere. Again I reiterate if this was the best rate that could be procured after a healthy competition between vying phone companies, I wouldn’t be saying a word. But it is NOT. It is the rate at which the phone company and the state can maximize the windfall of a person’s desperate need to communicate with their loved ones from behind bars. IF there is any competition, I’m sure it’s over just what percentage of the profit goes into the general fund, NOT what rate constitutes the best deal of Texas’s families of incarcerated citizens. And that’s the problem of a state entity getting involved in ANY industry. It skews the outcomes. Some things that a government is responsible for should be costly, never profitable. It should be costly for the government to wage war. It creates an inherent disincentive. It should be costly for the government to incarcerate its citizens. This creates a disincentive.

The TDCJ was the last state-prison system in the U.S. to permit the phone system for prisoners. What a shame. Continuing contact with familial and friendly relations
is one of the most impactful influences on rehabilitation. It provides the opportunity for fathers to stay in touch
 with their children, for brothers and sisters to communicate. Mothers can check up on how their incarcerated sons are doing and receive some measure of peace. These people should not be exploited for filthy lucre.
The phone system is not, by far and away, the only method the TDCJ uses to milk the purse of inmates’ families. They also make a great deal of money off of “J-Pay” letters. These are the closest thing a ‘Texas prisoner has to the 
free e-mails that so many other prisoners have access to, especially at the federal level. J-Pays are nothing like your G-mail account, though. First, the prisoner can only receive the “e-mails”, he can’t send them, because he has 
no access to the internet.

Moreover, they are not delivered instantly, because the prisoner has no computer. He receives a printed copy of the “e-mail” at mail-call along with any “snail-mail” letters. Finally, and most importantly, the J-Pay differs in that it costs ¢49 PER PAGE to send one. Each picture you add is an additional page. My Dad, who at the best times had hateful relationships with anything remotely technological in nature, once tried to send 
me a copy of a web page he thought I’d like. The page spawned into 17 printed J-Pay pages and cost him $7.79. Just to see a Facebook page he thought I’d like. E-mails ought to be free. If the TDCJ wants to make money off the prisoner, they need to sell us tablet-computers to we can make use
 of free e-mail services. They could even charge us for the internet. No free hot-spot here, Texas prisoner!

You’ve read before my criticism of the TDCJ version of “care packages”. When the Texas legislature mandated that 
the TDCJ provide a way for third-party vendors to send care packages straight to the inmate, they interpreted this law
 in a fanciful way and made a website so that a prisoner’s loved ones could basically buy him commissary items from 
their website. Guess what? This ain’t free. Besides the already high prices of the commissary items themselves,
 there is a $6.49 fee for using “E-comm Direct”!!! Yes. That’s $6.49. For that kind of chump change, you could sign up
 for Amazon Prime! Have drones drop the stuff into the cell! Of course, that might get you in trouble.

That $6.49 is a popular number for them, too. That’s also how much it costs if you use J-Pay (the same J-Pay that TDCJ uses to rip off Texas families for “e-mails” that ought to be free) to put money on the prisoner’s commissary account. Just send a money order. It’s free.

The point is that this behavior is truly regressive. Historians easily recall a time jailers could be bought 
to provide comforts or extra provisions for their jailed loved ones. Money in the palm could buy the prisoner a straw mattress, for instance, or transfer to a warmer cell away from the wind. Favors could be exchanged for pieces of meat to supplement the bread and water provisions. In fact, these practices are still alive and well in the prison system of our neighbor nation south of the border. As much as it pains me to say it, the practice is alive and well here 
in the U.S. of A., too. It’s just that the system has been formalized, and for some reason, accepted as protocol for wise prison-management. In reality, it’s just an open system of bribery for better treatment of the one you love who 
is behind bars.

If we work to begin rejecting the “acceptability” of prisons for profit, all of us will benefit. It will force 
the state, in view of costly confinement, to work towards crime deterrance instead of punishment. It will also force them to get creative about rehabilitation and preventing recidivism instead of about how to exploit an already hurting class of people.

The Attorneys
  • Francisco Hernandez
  • Daniel Hernandez
  • Phillip Hall
  • Rocio Martinez