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American Bar Association Recommends Expanded Prisoner Telephone Access

by John E. Dannenberg

The Criminal Justice Section of the American Bar Association (ABA) made a formal recommendation in its Report to the House of Delegates" (August 2005) (Report) that the ABA go on record as urging all federal and state governments to afford Prisoners reasonable opportunity to maintain communication with the free community, and to offer telephone services in the correctional setting with an appropriate range of options at the lowest possible rates.

Recognizing numerous studies that have shown a direct correlation between prisoners' outside community support and their eventual reintegration success, the ABA took a pro-active stand to promote public interest in a responsible corrections telecommunications policy. The Report added that telephone access can contribute to safer prisons by reducing tension via improved morale and better staff-prisoner interactions. Voice communication becomes literally a lifeline since at least 40% of the national prison population is known to be functionally illiterate.

Notwithstanding the accepted need to put controls on telephone abuse by prisoners, the Report noted that many detention entities install draconian limitations that instead frustrate the beneficial purpose of telephone contact. The limitation of collect-only calls severely limits contact with attorneys, a result found by many courts to be unconstitutional. Observing that 82 percent of state felony detainees are represented by public defenders, the ABA called the resulting levy of such exorbitant rates (up to 65% kickback) onto unsuspecting taxpayers particularly pernicious.

The Report was critical of excessive-rate practices because they indiscriminately punish innocent family and friends of prisoners. But even for those who can pay the fare, many are excluded by contractor practices wherein calls are blocked unless the person called subscribes to that telecommunications carrier, a restriction known to exclude up to 80% of prisoners' contacts.

Technology is hurting prisoners as well, the Report notes, because many free people now have only cell phones or use voice-over-internet-protocol, neither of which is set up to process collect billing. Attorneys, who must maintain telephone contact with prisoners to protect their constitutional right to counsel, are also financially burdened. Worse yet, most, prisoners must make their collect calls on phones that are monitored and/or recorded, violating attorney-client privacy, a policy the ABA calls presumptively unconstitutional.

The Report notes that easy money, unchecked by the courts or regulatory agencies, is the root of the evil. Entering into such an arrangement [65% kickback] creates an ethical quagmire of both real and perceived conflicts which compromise both the professional integrity of correctional officials and the Public's Perception. Given the penological and societal benefits that occur when incarcerated people are able to maintain contact with the outside world, the monetary advantages are not worth the human costs.

Accordingly, the ABA is on record as recommending that correctional officials obtain the broadest possible range of calling options consistent with security, to include toll-free calling, debit calling and less oppressive restrictions. They emphasize the calls should be at the lowest possible ratesnot the highestobtained by soliciting competitive, non-exclusive contracts with multiple vendors. Finally, the Report implores that call-blocking never be imposed for failure to have the call recipient subscribe to a particular telecommunications carrier. Call-blocking should only occur for legitimate security concerns, customer requests or non-payment of bills. Limits should be as flexible and generous as possible in light of the many benefits of maintaining ties between incarcerated people, their families, and their communities.

PLN readers and their families should quote this ABA Report in fighting repressive prison telephone policies.

Source: American Bar Association, Criminal Justice Section, Report to the House of Delegates (Aug. 2005

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