The cost of talking to family from prison strains ties that help inmates thrive after release
Phone calls, electronic messages or letters sent to people inside prison are not free. Those costs can add up quickly, especially for people in prison who may not make much.
TOPEKA, Kansas — Trish Gaston spends $50 a week talking to her two sons at the Lansing Correctional Facility.
Gaston has tried cutting back to save some money, but she said “I need to hear their voice every day.”
“That’s their only contact to the outside world and to feel somewhat normal,” she said.
Even convicted felons, Gaston said, deserve to talk to their family.
That desire for connection with friends and family grows more urgent around the holidays. The buzz of Christmas gatherings or Thanksgiving feasts feels emptier without every loved one around, but inmates and their families make do with phone calls or messages.
Families of prisoners in Kansas say the phone calls, emails or even postcards that keep inmates in touch with loved ones come with unreasonable hassle and cost — barriers that could leave them isolated and less likely blend into a law-abiding world when they finally get paroled.
The people who run Kansas prisons argue they do what they can to balance the need of inmates to communicate with the outside against ways those contacts can channel the smuggling of drugs into prison or accommodate schemes that could put people in danger inside and outside prison.
So they’ve devised ways that give wardens more control of how prisoners can communicate with the outside — ways that leave inmates and their families increasingly frustrated.
That holiday card the family sent? It might get caught up in the mailroom for weeks. And the prisoner might only get a photocopy because prison officials worry about drugs that might get soaked into the paperboard.
Electronic messages can get delayed, and sometimes denied, with explanations that families say can feel contrived — or without any explanation.
Then comes the cost.
From July 2016 to July 2021, 5,238 inmates got released from Kansas prisons on indigent status. That means someone had less than $12 in their inmate bank account.
At 25 cents a message, around $10 per video call and 14 cents a minute for a phone call, parents and inmates say people who make a few dozen dollars a month can’t afford to talk. Phone calls also come with hefty fees. Adding $20 of phone time buys just under two hours of phone time.
Abigail Reed, an inmate at the Topeka Correctional Facility, is not able to work any kind of job because she is seven months pregnant. She would feel better if she could talk more with her mother, but medical bills make it hard for her mother to add money to talk.
Her mother will take her child once it’s born, but Reed worries she won’t be able to keep in touch with her mother because of cost.
“I would feel better if I could see (and) talk to her more regularly,” she said. “She does what she can for me.”
Inmates with financial backing, either from their prison jobs or from their families, may not struggle to pay. But those with tight budgets say the costs run too high.
The Kansas Department of Corrections says it does provide low-income inmates up to four free letters a month so they can keep in touch with the outside.
The department does have to balance safety with open communication. A message is delayed because it needs to be reviewed before being approved, and mail might move slow because it was flagged as a safety concern.
In September 2021, the Ellsworth Correctional Facility began a pilot program that photocopied mail because officials there said drugs were getting into the prison through the postal system. Corrections Secretary Jeff Zmuda said in a letter to inmates and families that mailed drugs led to two deaths in the prison system.
“This threatens not only the lives of these residents, but the health and safety of other residents and staff who come into contact with the substance or with second-hand exposures,” he said.
California and Connecticut have made calls from prison free, and more sweeping changes could be coming.
The Federal Communications Commission has looked into lowering rates before, but courts said they lack authority to do so and can only lower rates of phone calls between states. A bill in the U.S. Senate would give the agency power to adjust rates for in-state calls and video visits.
“This is a complicated problem, but it is one we have got to solve,” FCC Chairperson Jessica Rosenworcel told NPR in late October. “You and I make a phone call — if we don't like a provider, we just choose someone else. A jail or prison develops an exclusive contract with one provider.”
Rosenworcel said that 2.7 million U.S. children have parents in jail or prison and that constant communication with loved ones can reduce recidivism.
Gaston, the mother with children in Lansing, knows keeping in touch with her children will only help them in the long run, but she said the prison doesn’t make it easy.
It may not seem like much, but she said holiday cards and regular phone calls let someone know they are loved.
“It’s got to lift your spirits somewhat, they have very little in there to lift their spirits,” she said. “Something simple like that does make a difference.”
Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at email@example.com.
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