Step one is to establish extortionate long distance rates as the only possible way to talk to inmates. In the world you and I live in, long distance costs are effectively zero; not so for prisoners, where $14 a minute isn’t unheard of.
These rates are decided by legal limits, not actual costs; prison phone providers have repeatedly gone to court to prevent the FCC from imposing rate caps here; those suits are ongoing — but the cap is still a very high 11 cents per minute.
Step two? Eliminate actual visits in favor of video calls with absurdly high per-minute charges.
Travis County ended all in-person visitations in May 2013, leaving video visitation as the exclusive method for people on the outside to communicate with the incarcerated. But Travis County is only on the leading edge of a new technological trend that threatens to abolish in-person visitation across the country. Over 600 prisons in 46 states have some sort of video visitation system, and every year, more of those facilities do away with in-person visitation.
For the families of the 2.3 million incarcerated Americans nationwide, crippling costs are part and parcel of supporting a loved one in jail. A sweeping survey of families by the Ella Baker Center showed that more than 1 in 3 families goes into debt just to cover the costs of keeping in touch with their loved one. Of everyone pouring money into those systems, 87% are women.
These fees are the linchpin in an elaborate racket between telecommunications providers, prisons and local governments. The business model for the three major prison telecoms is built around long-term contracts that establish them as the sole provider in a given county or state. In order to win these contracts, the major companies promise each county or state “site commissions” — a euphemism for kickbacks. These deals are lucrative: In Los Angeles County, for example, it brings in a baseline, contractual guarantee of $15 million a year. In some counties, this money trickles back down to the prisons.
Both of these plans make it much, much more difficult for those inside to maintain relationships and connections with friends and family outside — which is absolutely counterproductive. Having an active, non-felon support network upon parole or release has been shown over and over to keep people from ending up back behind bars.
The minute you set up a system where people can literally get rich in the prison industry, you have fucked up, because rapacious soulless assholes will have absolutely zero problem screwing these people over. Repeatedly. The end result is a net higher cost to society, because the worse we make prison, the higher the recidivism rates go — which means we all end up paying Big Prison more money to house more prisoners for more years.
Prison operations companies and those that feed at the same trough see this as a feature, not a bug.