For the Incarcerated, A Phone Connection Can Change Lives


Criminal justice reform advocates from the faith community are celebrating the recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) action to reduce the cost of prison phone calls.

It's an act of justice.

The August 9 FCC vote to place restrictions on the price of prison phone calls brought welcome, if incremental, relief to families of the incarcerated, who pay exorbitant rates to receive calls from their loved ones behind bars.

It was also good news for inmates whose meager pay for prison jobs could lead to spending a day and a half’s wages just for a connection charge. Advocacy groups such as the ACLU and the social justice ministry of the United Church of Christ hailed the decision as a manifestation of justice.

Practitioners concerned about family connectivity and its role in reducing recidivism discovered an ally in the process of rehabilitation.

The Commission issued the guidelines for the policy September 26.

Prison phone calls can cost a family up to 3,000 dollars per year for a weekly fifteen-minute conversation. Rates of up to one dollar per minute, plus connection charges, can lead a family to choose between communication with an inmate, or medicine.

Such was the case with Martha Wright, whose grandson was incarcerated in Arizona. She filed a complaint with the FCC several years ago after being told by a federal judge that her case belonged with the commission, not the courts.

But the petition languished until acting FCC Chair Mignon Clyburn took up the matter in 2012.

After a hearing in July 2013, the FCC ruled 2- 1 to cap interstate prison phone rates at 25 cents per minute and eliminate prohibitive connection charges for placing calls.

While studies show that keeping inmates in contact with their families results in reduced rates of recidivism, oppositionto the ruling came immediately, mostly from phone companies that benefitted financially from their contracts with prisons.

But the prisons themselves faced the fact that a significant portion of their revenue came from commissions (or what some have called “kickbacks”) from phone companies providing inmate calling services.

So correctional systems which faced an estimated loss of $103.9 million in revenue, according to the Prison Legal Newshad a financial interest in the ruling as well.

And clearly, it does cost more for inmates to make phone calls because of the costs of monitoring calls— a security reality that makes comparisons with normal phone rates for average citizens problematic.

But if we believe that “corrections” contains an inherent value of supporting change for incarcerated men and women, then we must value the role of phone calls to friends and families (as well as lawyers) in maintaining connections with the outside world which help strengthen family connectivity and reduce recidivism.

In the Healing Communities faith-based initiative which I direct, we place a premium on the role that phone calls can play in an inmate’s ability to properly manage his time in prison, and support her successful Reentry into society.

The examples of three Philadelphia congregations are instructive:

First, Berean Baptist Church, sends phone cards, or places money on the books of all inmates with family members in the church every holiday. They want to be sure each family is connected to their incarcerated loved one at holiday time.

Second, Praise and Glory Tabernacle, whose pastor emphasizes strengthening families irrespective of obstacles, has a member who opens her home and her phone to the family of an incarcerated member each week, so that the inmate can speak with his wife and children regularly. His family cannot afford the call, but this member can.

Third, Moore’s Memorial Baptist Church supports a member who takes a phone call every evening from an incarcerated neighborhood young adult who refers to her as a second mother. She even performed her own version of cognitive behavioral therapy when she talked him out of a retaliatory action against another inmate who stole his underwear.

“Son, is it really worth going to the “hole” over some drawers? Wash the ones you have until I put some money on your books.”

The young man thought through the consequences of retaliation. He enrolled in college courses instead.

The faith community can assist inmates and their families through the creative use of phone calls to keep them connected to sources of social support.

Additionally, faith leaders such as United Church of Christ president Rev. Geoffrey Black, who stood with prisoners’ families during the July FCC hearings, and the denomination’s Cheryl Leanza, who both testified at the hearings and mobilized faith communities to provide advocacy around the issue of prison phone rates, have been important voices in publicizing the need for reform.

For them, like the congregations in Philadelphia, “prison ministry” is more than holding a worship service.

Harold Dean Trulear is director of Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Reentry Initiative, and Associate Professor of Applied Theology at Howard University. He welcomes comments from readers.

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