New York’s Gov. Eliot Spitzer set an important example earlier this year when he abandoned the longstanding practice of charging prisoners bankrupting fees for collect calls. Telephone rates in New York have since dropped by about half. Those rates are likely to fall further now that Mr. Spitzer has signed a bill requiring the state to consider the cost of inmate phone calls when it negotiates the next contract for prison telephone services.
That’s a far cry from how business is done elsewhere. In most states, contracts are awarded to the company that pays the state the largest “commission” for such calls — essentially a legalized kickback. The states and the companies both rack up the cash because inmates are only allowed to make collect calls while the person who accepts the call is charged a massive premium, sometimes as much as six times the going rate for regular calls.
This amounts to a hidden tax on inmates’ families, who tend to be among the country’s poorest. It also weakens family ties, making it harder for inmates to make successful transitions to outside life.
Even at a reduced price, the collect-call-only approach is not the only option. The federal prison system uses a more affordable debit calling system, in which inmates use money from computer-controlled accounts. New York and other states should adopt the debit system. No families should have to choose between putting food on the table or accepting a collect call from a loved one behind bars.
A New York Times Editorial July 27, 2007