It’s cheaper to call Singapore than to call an American prisoner

Collect calls from prisons are a multi-million dollar business.

The many ways that the prison industry profits off the people it incarcerates – from cushy prison guard union contracts to dubious private prisons – is a long list with many surprises.

The latest? Phonecalls:

According to Prison Legal News, the cost of making a long distance phone call from a prison in Oregon includes a $3.95 connection fee plus .69 cents a minute, costing $14.30 for a 15-minute call. Compare this with making a public call outside of prison which costs anywhere from 05 to 10 cents per minute for long distance calls on landlines, costing a maximum of $1.50 for a 15-minute call.

For many families with loved ones behind bars, the choice between accepting a collect call and putting food on the table is a real and painful decision.  It may come as a surprise to many that the increased cost of these calls has nothing to do with the actual service that is being delivered. What is actually happening is that prisons have designed a business system that allows them to offset their operation costs onto the shoulders of innocent families and to reap a profit.

The state prison kickback rate varies, with Texas accepting a 40% commission rate for phone calls and charging up to $6.45 for a 15-minute call. That same phone call provided by the same company in Maryland yields a 60% commission rate and costs a family member $17.30.

Maybe the state thinks this is justified. After all, to house a prisoner – even a nonviolent one – costs upwards of $30,000 a year, sometimes more. You could basically pay people minimum wage just to stay our of prison and save money in the process. $15 bucks a call is just the state making up for lost revenue.

Of course, it would make more sense to reform our prison system and our drug laws so that fewer not-menaces-to-society ended up behind bars. But again, the powers-that-be and the many groups that stand to lose money from drug reform and prison reform will lobby hard to see the racket continue perpetually.

If you want to understand why America locks so many people up, just follow the money.

“These contracts are priced not only to unjustly enrich the telephone companies by charging much higher rates than those paid by the general public,” Prison Legal News reports, “but are further inflated to cover the commission payments, which suck over $152 million per year out of the pockets of prisoners’ families—who are the overwhelming recipients of prison phone calls.

Averaging a 42 percent kickback nationwide, this indicates that the phone market in state prison systems is worth more than an estimated $362 million annually in gross revenue.”

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Chris Christie’s welcome sanity on the war on drugs

I have mixed feelings about the governor of New Jersey, but this does make me like Chris Christie just that much more:

Andrew Sullivan has part of the transcript up:

[L]et us reclaim the lives of those drug offenders who have not committed a violent crime. By investing time and money in drug treatment – in an in-house, secure facility – rather than putting them in prison. Experience has shown that treating non-violent drug offenders is two-thirds less expensive than housing them in prison. And more importantly – as long as they have not violently victimized society – everyone deserves a second chance, because no life is disposable. I am not satisfied to have this as merely a pilot project; I am calling for a transformation of the way we deal with drug abuse and incarceration in every corner of New Jersey.

The rest is here. If only more people on the left and the right would start talking this way.

Reihan Salam writes:

I want all politicians, and in particular all conservatives, to pay careful attention to this: Christie highlighted a dangerous gap in the system that limits the discretion of judges to keep violent offenders behind bars. Yet he also made the case that nonviolent drug offenders should be given treatment rather than imprisoned because (1) it is cost-effective, (2) it is decent and humane, and (3) it recognizes that we can’t afford to waste human potential.

By leading with a “punitive” strategy (actually, a commonsense strategy — it’s about preserving discretion) and then pivoting to a measure that will help members of a marginalized population, Christie demonstrates his political sophistication, his strategic vision, his guts, and his decency. This is a big deal.

Possibly. It’s certainly a welcome brand of conservative politics. But will it really appeal to other conservative politicians? In states where the drug war is far more popular than in New Jersey, I doubt this line of reasoning is going to resonate. Furthermore, most politicians aren’t Christie and can’t pull off the tough and sincere thing the way Christie can.

Salam points out that “Christie evidently doesn’t believe that taking this stand will limit his political future” writing that “his brand of conservatism can form the foundation of a coalition that captures centrist voters even in a heavily urban, diverse northeastern state.” Which is exactly why he doesn’t think this will hurt his political career. The fact that Christie is working to appeal to New Jersey voters means he doesn’t think it will hurt him with said voters. And national voters are going to be a lot more sympathetic to this line of thinking, if polls are to be believed, should Christie run for president someday.

Salam guesses that one reason Christie didn’t run for president this time around was the work he has remaining in New Jersey, noting that “ building a solid foundation there could be a great help if he does indeed pursue a national career.”

I think it’s more likely that Christie is simply very good at reading the political winds. He knew he’d be up against a formidable opponent in Romney and an even more formidable opponent in Obama. It’s harder to go after an incumbent than it is to run at the end of the other party’s two terms. Any sensible observer would see how bad the odds are in 2012 and Christie is nothing if not a savvy politician. 2016 is a better year for Republicans, and I think Gingrich and/or Romney will learn this the hard way.

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