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Virginia's General Assembly Sells Out Prisoners' Families for Phone Money

Virginia's General Assembly reneged on their agreement with a prisoner advocate group to substantially reduce phone rates between prisoners and their families.

Virginia's Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE) had lobbied for years to have a state-approved prepaid phone system for prisoners calling their families. The newly acquired service took effect on February 1, 2005, and promised as much as a two-thirds savings over current rates. The result was not even close.

Under the original phone service a 15-minute, interstate call cost $9.20. The same call is now $8.40, a savings of less than 10 percent.

It's not that cheaper rates are not available. That same $8.40 call from a Virginia state prison costs only $3.45 from a Virginia federal prison.

They're sticking it to us again, said CURE Director Jean Auldridge. The General Assembly doesn't want to give up the money.

The money Ms. Auldridge refers to is the 40 percent commission MCI pays the state for the prisoner phone contract. Annual revenue for state coffers in 2005 was $7 million, an average of $225 per prisoner.

MCI and Verizon also made almost $2 million in political campaign contributions to Virginia legislators in 2005.

MCI's prison phone rates were declared uncompetitive, in 2001, by the State Corporations Commission (SCC) a watchdog over state utilities. The SCC ordered MCI to lower its rates. The State's General Assembly responded by stripping the SCC of its authority over government phone contracts before the commission could implement its order. And for good measure, the Virginia supreme court, in an unpublished decision, held the SCC lacked authority to issue its order in the first place.

It just seems so wrong to me, said Auldridge. It seems that families of prisoners are just not considered in our state. They are taxpayers like everybody else. They're not lower class. They're not people who should be picked on like this. Auldridge also points out that regular contact with family encourages rehabilitation and enhances effective reentry of a prisoner into society.

Virginia's General Assembly is simply another example of the prison-for-profit trend plaguing this country.

Source: The Virginia-Pilot

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