A few weekends ago, I woke up to my cell phone buzzing, sliding off my pillow. I didn’t recognize the number and—being as unfortunately early as it was—I didn’t want to pick up, but I knew I had to.
It was the mother of my brother’s cell mate. The families of the incarcerated have to be prepared to receive and transmit messages to, from, and for one another, even if you have never met. Phone time is scarce. Any channel going out—a lifeline, really—might end up being so for more than one person. She explained to me quickly how she got my number, an informal credential we all use, and proceeded expectantly to what she had called about.
The mother, we’ll call her Gina, gave me a list of items—snack food mainly, and some toiletries—the inmates in and around my brother’s cell wanted for their hall. Although I had never spoken to Gina, this was not the first request like that I have received.
My brother is more fortunate than some because our family can financially absorb the cost of expensive phone calls. Hundreds of dollars a year go to talking to him because we can, and since we can, we always do. To receive a call at a cell phone, most family members have to register or even purchase a plan with a private company contracted to a state bureau of prisons. While calling to a landline might be slightly less expensive, it is still prohibitive, especially in an age when more people are choosing to forego having a landline altogether.
To fight this, Color of Change has launched a petition aimed at the Federal Communications Commission to fight this egregious and downright cruel price gouging. “The phone service providers awarded monopoly contracts by prison operators have a captive audience in the millions of American families with incarcerated loved ones,” the petition reads, “and that captive audience is subjected to indefensible price gouging for basic communication.”
In 2001, Martha Wright, the grandmother of an incarcerated man, argued that the price gouging engaged in by prison phone companies resulted in a violation of her constitutional rights. According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, who represented Wright, the plaintiffs argued that “their rights to foster and maintain family relations under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, their rights to due process and equal protection of law under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, and their right to unimpaired freedom of contract under Article 1, Section 10, were all being violated. The plaintiffs also alleged that the agreements violated the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, 15 U.S.C. Sections 1 et seq., the Communications Act, 47 U.S.C. Sections 151 et seq., and other laws of the District of Columbia.”
The private prison industry, driven by profit, might be the least visible component of the machinery of institutional racism, despite being one of the most pervasive. The effect of the private prison industry on immigration law (see this 2010 NPR article on the role of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) on Arizona’s SB 1070), while left largely out of the current policy discussion around immigration reform, has held as a steady undercurrent, largely because it is impossible to ignore. CCA was also the defendant in the initial case brought forth by Martha Wright.
Aside from the contracts corporations like CCA or GEO Group Inc. receive from states for the operation of their prisons, they stand to profit from work contracts, treating prisoners as a captive labor force:
“Federal Prison Industries, also known as Unicor, does not have to worry much about its overhead. It uses prisoners for labor, paying them 23 cents to $1.15 an hour. Although the company is not allowed to sell to the private sector, the law generally requires federal agencies to buy its products, even if they are not the cheapest.”
Not to mention the captive consumer base they have. When I order something for my brother, I’m ordering it from a company that has a contract with the prison to sell food to the prisoners, or rather, their family whom are emotionally held hostage. Phone operating contracts work similarly. Even as alternatives to incarceration, such as anklets, are explored, private prison corporations stand to profit from producing and operating those other monitoring technologies.
The problems with private prisons are vast, and we need policy changes both in sentencing and for the system itself. But something big we can do now is make it easier for those inside to speak to their legal counsel and loved ones. Sign the petition.