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HRDC prison phone director urges W.Va. to reduce prison phone rates

West Virginia Gazette, May 14, 2014.
David Ganim: W.Va. should stop collecting on prisoners’ phone calls
By David Ganim

The West Virginia Division of Corrections is to renew or rebid its prison phone services contract on June 30. We encourage the DOC to enter into a contract that does not include commission payments and is based on the lowest cost to the call recipients — typically prisoners’ family members — as eight other states have already done.

I realize that the DOC receives about $931,600 in annual prison phone commission revenue, which is mainly generated from prisoners’ families who accept collect calls, pay for calls from their prepaid accounts or send money to their incarcerated family members to place on their debit phone accounts. While the revenue from commissions likely funds many worthwhile programs, there is no legitimate reason why such programs should be funded largely by prisoners’ families and friends through inflated phone rates.

When rebidding its prison phone contract, the DOC has the opportunity to become the next state to forgo commissions and thereby institute lower prison phone rates. States that have already banned such commissions include California, New York, Michigan, New Mexico, South Carolina, Nebraska, Missouri and Rhode Island.

Lower phone rates facilitate greater communication between prisoners and their families, which, research has shown, has a rehabilitative effect and results in decreased recidivism. In the words of the nation’s largest prison phone company, Global Tel-Link: “Studies and reports continue to support that recidivism can be significantly reduced by regular connection and communications between inmates, families and friends — 13 percent reduction in felony reconviction and a 25 percent reduction in technical violations.”

Further, practices that “facilitate and strengthen family connections during incarceration” can “reduce the strain of parental separation, reduce recidivism rates, and increase the likelihood of successful re-entry” of prisoners, according to a 2005 report by the Re-Entry Policy Council. And a 2004 study by the Urban Institute found “It is evident that family support, when it exists, is a strong asset that can be brought to the table in the re-entry planning process.” As many prisoners are housed far from their families, phone calls provide such support.

Indeed, for many prisoners, phone calls to their family and children are the primary means of maintaining family ties and parental relationships — and according to the Department of Justice, an estimated 2.7 million U.S. children have an incarcerated parent.

This is recognized by the federal Bureau of Prisons, which states: “Telephone privileges are a supplemental means of maintaining community and family ties that will contribute to an inmate’s personal development ... a valuable tool in the overall correctional process.”

When the West Virginia DOC renews or rebids its prison phone services contract, it should give serious consideration to forgoing commission revenue in whole or part, and placing the greatest emphasis for the contract on the lowest overall cost of prison phone calls.

David Ganim, a former West Virginian and Marshall University graduate, is an official of the Human Rights Defense Center, based in Florida.




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