Ill Communication

David E. Larson, state ombudsman for corrections, worries that higher phone rates will further separate inmates and families
Tony Nelson

It goes without saying that the care and feeding of prisoners perennially tops the list of politically unpopular ways to spend taxpayer dollars. So during the past couple of years the folks who run Minnesota's prisons have come up with a number of ways to make inmates pay a part of those costs. Prison wages have been cut. Prices on items like toothpaste and candy bars have gone up at prison canteens. And a new policy went into effect a little over a year ago in which the prison collects ten percent of any money sent to inmates.

More recently prison administrators found another way to bring money in when they signed a contract making MCI the sole provider of phone service to Minnesota prisons. Since last September, MCI has been charging much higher rates than those paid by the general public: Recipients of local collect calls from inmates are charged a $1 connection fee and 5 cents per minute. The connection fee goes up to $3 or $3.50 for long-distance collect calls, plus per-minute fees of 13 to 55 cents. The profits go to MCI, which then gives the Department of Corrections a cut: 40 cents on the dollar for every local call and 44 cents for long distance. Similar deals have generated some $15 million each year for Florida and Ohio, and more than $20 million each for New York and California.

Prison officials say they need this costly and exclusive deal because providing phone service to a prison is no easy task. New technology provided by these phone companies allows for security measures such as automatic blocking of prisoners' calls to people who do not want to hear from them. Other features are designed to thwart possible scams that have been run from prisons using outdated phones, officials say. Profits go toward maintaining the complicated phone system, says the DoC, and "to purchase things that will benefit all inmates, like gym equipment."

Advocates for those behind bars say that they understand that the phone system may have needed some updating. But they balk at the idea of making such changes seemingly without regard for the additional hardships they might bring to inmates and their families. Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union, says changes to the phone system are just the latest twist on the political trend of being tough on prisoners. "It's possible to get away with doing all kinds of things to inmates, because nobody cares what happens to them," he says. "They're considered scumbags who deserve what they get in prison."

Inmates who pay for calls themselves aren't charged the connection fee but must pay 34 cents per minute. However, most inmates call home collect because they can't afford to pay for calls themselves. That means the real victims of the new phone system are inmates' families. "Why are they being punished?" Samuelson wonders. "They are, by and large, a group of people who are already totally impoverished because Mom or Dad or some other family member is in jail and can't help pay the bills."

The effect has already been felt by inmates' relatives in other states, says Mary-Ann Sennett, litigation director of the D.C. Prisoner's Legal Services Project. "We get calls from grandmothers and mothers who are going broke trying to pay for calls on limited incomes," she says. "It's fine if they need to upgrade phone service, but we don't believe it needs to be this costly."

Last year Sennett's organization filed suit against several Washington, D.C., prisons on this issue. In addition, lawsuits are pending against several other prison systems, including those in Michigan, California, New York. The lawsuits also charge that prison officials frequently chose the highest bid rather than the lowest. It goes without saying, the suits allege, that the costliest agreements make the most money for prisons.

Corrections officials declined interview requests from City Pages for this story, but they did agree to answer written questions. According to the answers they provided, prison officials don't know how much Minnesota has earned so far from the MCI contract, nor would they disclose bids made by other phone companies interested in the prison contract. MCI was chosen, they say, because the company was best able "to provide the required service due to their extensive experience with inmate phone systems and their rate structure, which was favorable to both the DoC and the inmates." Corrections officials say they weren't aware of the lawsuits in other states when they signed the Minnesota agreement.

David E. Larson, state ombudsman for corrections, says that in the four months the new phone rates have been in effect, his office has received several complaints from inmates who worry that they will lose touch with relatives who can't afford to call anymore. "Why make it harder for people to communicate?" he wonders. "They're going to get out some day. Do we really want them to not know their own children? Do we really want to cut them off from society? What kind of people will they be when they get out if they've had little to no human contact and love for years?"

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