When Thomas Barnes served less than a year in jail on a felony drug charge, he spoke with his mother almost daily. It cost half of her monthly income.
“What it costs to make a call from jail is horrible,” said Barnes, 43, of Mount Clemens. “There were always wait times trying to get to a phone, and that’s ridiculous.”
Barnes was incarcerated over 20 years ago but the issue of high cost for inmate phone calls remains.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s $76 billion budget plan tries to reduce such costs in state prisons.
It provides $11 million for prisoner educational programs that previously came from the profits from inmate phone calls. The $11 million would replace dollars collected from prisoners and their families.
“If we as a department and we as a state see the value and the benefit in prisoner educational programs, then they should be paid for out of state resources just like everything else is paid for,” said Chris Gautz, a public information officer for the Department of Corrections.
Those costs have already been reduced somewhat.
Last year the Corrections Department renegotiated its contract with the phone service provider Global Tel Link. All inmate calls were reduced to 14 cents per minute, a 12.5% decrease from when rates were 16 cents per minute.
The department anticipates that once negotiations are completed, inmate phone calls could be less than 10 cents per minute, Gautz said.
The agency predicts that families can expect to see savings as early as October.
But some advocates say that’s not enough. They say that the price for families to call inmates should be eliminated.
Rep. Tenisha Yancey, D- Harper Woods, recently introduced a bill to do just that. It also calls for increasing the number of phones in prisons and ensuring that each inmate gets at least two hours of time on the phone daily.
Families who have an incarcerated loved are responsible for the phone bill even though they are taxpayers whose taxes also go towards funding jails and prisons.
“Really, what we’re pushing for is to go the rest of the way so that people who are already at the loss of a wage earner in their family because of incarceration aren’t both paying taxes and paying phone fees to stay in contact with their loved ones,” said Joshua Hoe, the senior political analyst for Safe and Just Michigan a prison advocacy organization.
But Gautz said such a move would be a costly shift to taxpayers. Families spent $28 million in 2019 on inmate phone calls, Gautz said. If calls were reduced to zero, taxpayers would bear the cost, which could increase $30 or $40 million.
“We’re doing everything we can to make them as cheap as possible, but people who are making those calls and receiving those calls should be the ones who pay for it, just like we all pay our own cell phone bills, “ Gautz said.
A national advocacy group based in Florida, Prison Phone Justice, ranked Michigan 35th out of 50 states for the affordability of a 15-minute call in 2018, when calls were 16 cents per minute. Before 2018, rates were 20 cents per minute for prepaid calls, 21 cents per minute for debit calls and 25 cents per minute for collect calls.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a national advocacy organization based in Massachusetts, the cost for a 15-minute in-state phone call was as much as $22.56 in Michigan.
“Disconnecting families is dangerous,” said Tiffany Walker, a community organizer for Citizens for Prison Reform, a Lansing-based advocacy group for prisoners and their families.
“It is a threat to public safety. We know that by keeping families connected that it reduces crime, harm, trauma and violence within our prisons making them safer and our communities safer.”
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