Last month, when Seven Days published this "Sunshine Week" charticle highlighting Vermont organizations and individuals who are working to keep government officials honest and taxpayers informed, we neglected to include a Brattleboro-based magazine that has unquestionably filed more First Amendment lawsuits and Freedom of Information requests than any other news organization in the state: Prison Legal News.
PLN, a project of the Human Rights Defense Center, is a nonprofit monthly dedicated to protecting the rights of inmates held in state and federal custody. It was founded in May 1990 by Paul Wright, then an inmate in the Washington state correctional system who was doing time for killing a cocaine dealer during a 1987 botched robbery attempt. (To this day, he still claims it was self-defense.) Wright, who relocated to Vermont after his release from prison in 2003, was profiled by Seven Days in this 2007 cover story, "Doing Wright." The magazine he founded is now the largest and longest-running jailhouse publication in U.S. history, with more than 7000 subscribers in more than 2000 detention facilities nationwide.
The April 2011 issue continues PLN's fine tradition of muckraking with a scathing report on the phone rates charged to prisoners and their loved ones, as well as the lucrative commissions — or "kickbacks," as PLN calls them — paid to state correctional departments.
Two years in the making, the report analyzed the prison telephone contracts in all 50 states and found that, with few exceptions, such contracts charge inmates exorbitant rates well in excess of the rates charged to average consumers. And, since inmates' families are overwhelmingly the most common recipients of those collect and prepaid debit-card calls, such contracts suck more than $152 million out of the pockets of prisoners' families, most of whom live on low or moderate incomes.
PLN found that 42 states, including Vermont, accept commissions from prison phone companies, which include Unisys, Securus and Global Tel*Link (partly owned by investment banking firm Goldman Sachs). In some cases the commissions exceed 60 percent of prison phone revenues. These companies don't "compete" in the traditional sense, but negotiate contracts with states in advance that, PLN asserts, are often based on how much money can be returned to states.
"This has been a major concern for prisoners’ families, who are unfairly exploited by telephone companies and the government agencies that receive kickbacks from those companies,” said PLN associate editor Alex Friedmann. “This is an issue of fundamental fairness.”
The PLN report acknowledges that prison phone-service providers should be allowed to recoup the added expenses associated with providing a unique service in a security-challenging environment, such as providing phones with no removable parts, providing monitoring and archiving capability, and the difficulty of accessing equipment for servicing.
Nevertheless, PLN’s research provides a "before-and-after look at phone rates in several states that have banned, limited or reduced their kickback commissions.” When states forgo commissions, their phone rates drop significantly. For example, prison phone rates in New York dropped almost 69 percent when the state banned commission payments in 2008. In California, which finished phasing out prison phone kickbacks earlier this year, the rates declined by 61 percent.
According to documents obtained by PLN, between FY 2005 and FY 2009, inmate telephone commissions paid by Vermont prisoners and their families exceeded $1.52 million. Moreover, those figures don't include the long-distance phone rates charged to Vermont offenders and their families who are doing time in out-of-state facilities in Arizona, Massachusetts and Kentucky.
In one respect, the picture in Vermont has improved somewhat. According to Ira Sollace, director of finance at the Vermont Department of Corrections, since the PLN data was first gathered, the state has negotiated a better two-year contract with its prison phone company provider, Public Communications Services, Inc. (PCS) which lowered its rates for a 15-minute phone call by about 38 percent. (In fact, the PLN report recognizes PCS as one of the better players in the prison-telecom industry.)
Sollace, who hadn't seen the PLN report yet, acknowledges that the DOC gets a commission on every phone call placed by inmates. However, he explains that those commissions all get placed in an inmate recreation fund, and inmate-run recreational groups at every facility get to vote on how that money is spent, such as on board games, weight machines, sporting goods, etc.
"It strictly goes back to the inmates," Sollace emphasizes. "We can’t use it for any other function."
Wright laughs at that explanation.
“That’s simply not true. This is just another form of price gouging and racketeering," Wright asserts. "This is like Bernie Madoff saying, ‘I donate millions to charity each year.’ Yeah, you do, with other people’s stolen money. That’s exactly what they’re doing here."
Why should Vermonters care whether inmates or their families are paying exorbitant phone rates while these prisoners are living on the taxpayers' dime? The report's author, John Dannenberg, offers one reason beyond that of not punishing offenders' families for the sins of their loved ones.
"There is a a widely known and researched correlation between prisoners who maintain contact with their families and those who are successful in staying out of prison after they are released," he writes. "This, in turn, benefits the community by reducing costs associated with recidivism."
For more info on this issue, check out the Prison Phone Justice Campaign website here.
Illustration by Stefan Bumbeck.