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Disciplinary Self-Help Litigation Manual

Coard: Thieving jail, prison phone industry oughta be in cells

The Philadelphia Tribune, April 20, 2020. https://www.phillytrib.com/commentary/michaelco...

Coard: Thieving jail, prison phone industry oughta be in cells

The fees charged- better stated, the robberies committed- by phone companies at county jails, state prisons, federal detention centers, and federal prisons are nothing more than thuggish crimes victimizing defenseless and poor inmates along with their defenseless and poor loved ones. And I say this from my experienced point of view as an attorney who has practiced criminal law for more than 25 years.

“Robbery” is defined as the taking of something by force. In the criminal context, “taking” means removing property from someone by force. And “force” includes duress- especially during this current coronavirus pandemic in which all public visits to all inmates are banned. Therefore, the only access is phone access.

Although these thuggish crimes by these robbing phone companies happen to inmates and their loved ones in every state in the country, Pennsylvania is one of the worst two offenders on the entire East Coast, extorting nearly a dollar a minute at the rate of $12.20 for each standard 15-minute interval local call (based on 2019 figures, which are the most recent and comprehensive available).

As reported by Prison Legal News (PLN) on April 1, “Unless someone has been through the criminal justice system themselves, or tried to stay in contact with a family member or friend in jail or prison, they are likely to be unaware of the $1.75 billion industry that gouges consumers by providing phone services to prisoners.” PLN adds, “There are... [several] providers for inmate calling systems, though the two largest providers, Securus and Global Tel Link, form a virtual duopoly in the market. Securus has contracts with about 3,400 prisons and jails in the United States, and Global Tel Link has over 2,400, according to a Dec. 31, 2019, story from NBC News.”

Securus operates in Pennsylvania state prisons and Global Tel Link in Philadelphia county jails. Speaking of Philadelphia, officials in this county should follow the lead of nearby Lehigh County Controller Mark Pinsley. In a powerfully progressive three-page letter dated March 5, Pinsley publicly called on the local government to give back to the jail inmates a $225,000 windfall the county had received from inmate phone calls. This meticulous accounting-based and enlightened incarceration reform-based letter can be read at https://www.lehighcounty.org/Portals/0/PDF/controller/V20-01%20-%20Prison%20Phone%20Contract%20Letter.. The money, Pinsley explained, resulted from the county in December 2019 having renegotiated its deal with Global Tel Link. Hey, Philly City Council! Hey, Philly Mayor! Hey, Philly City Controller! Where y’all at?

Even in “lock ‘em up” Texas, Dallas County recently approved a new contract severely reducing the cost of a 15-minute jail call from $3.60 down to only 18 cents, which is about a 95% cut. That 18 cents figure equals approximately one cent per minute- apparently the lowest in the country.

Prison Phone Justice, which is a project of Human Rights Defense Center, which in turn is a non-profit advocacy organization founded 24 years ago, last year stated, “94.1% of the revenue from phone calls is turned into ‘kickbacks,’ [meaning] money added unnecessarily to the cost of each phone call....”

 

The federal government, the states, the counties, and the phone industry should not be in the business of getting rich by robbing inmates and profiting from kickbacks or from any other exploitative behavior. And I’m referring to all inmates- especially, but not exclusively, the millions of county jail inmates and federal detention center inmates who are legally presumed innocent because they haven’t had a trial yet and accordingly weren’t sentenced for anything yet. The only reason most of them are in custody is they’re simply too poor to afford bail. In other words, they’re like hostages whose loved ones can’t raise the ransom money.

By the way, I should mention that, generally speaking, there’s a technical difference between a jail/detention center and a prison. Jails are operated by counties and they house pre-trial detainees as well as people who have been found guilty of or pled guilty to relatively lower-level charges and then were sentenced. Federal detention centers do the same thing regarding federal cases. However, prisons, whether state or federal, house people who have been found guilty of or pled guilty to more serious charges and then were sentenced.

In connection with inmates being held before being convicted of anything, Prison Policy Initiative in 2019 issued a report pointing out that “Charging pre-trial defendants high prices for phone calls punishes people who are legally innocent, drives up costs for their appointed counsel, and makes it harder for them to contact family members and others who might help them post bail or build their defense. It also puts them at risk of losing their jobs, housing, and custody of their children while they’re awaiting trial.”

For more information about strategies and activism to end exploitative jail, detention center, and prison phone profiteering, contact Prison Legal News at prisonlegalnews.org, Prison Phone Justice at prisonphonejustice.org, and Prison Policy Initiative at prisonpolicy.org. You should also contact Worth Rises at worthrises.org. In fact, it was Worth Rises, based in New York City, that was recently successful in its relentless activism to persuade the city government to make all calls from Rikers Island free of charge.

You can engage in similar and very easy activism by signing a petition to make all jail and all prison phone calls across the country free during the coronavirus pandemic and forever. Simply log onto act.colorofchange.org/sign/connect-incarcerated-families-now-covid-19-coronavirus/?source=worthrise.

In the profound words of Angela Davis, “I’m suggesting we abolish the social function of prisons [jails and detention centers].”

And, if I may add to Sistah Angela’s quote, I suggest that “The social functions of prisons, jails, and detention centers in a capitalist society includes exploitative profits- and that includes robbery by phone.”

 
 

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. They are not necessarily intended to reflect the views of the Philadelphia Tribune.

Michael Coard can be followed on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as well as at AvengingTheAncestors.com. His “Radio Courtroom” show can be heard on WURD96.1FM.

 

 

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