New York State has left in place a system which charges families of state prison inmates exorbitant rates to talk with family members. The cost is often justified by the security surrounding the phone calls which are monitored and subject to being recorded. WTOP reports as follows recent court decision.
"New York's highest court ruled Monday that families forced to pay high phone rates to talk to relatives in state prison won't receive refunds for the cost.
The lawsuit was first brought by the inmates' families in 2004.
In a 5-1 decision, the Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court's ruling that the families failed to assert legitimate claims under the state constitution".
How high are the charges? WTOP elaborates as follows.
"For years, families paid a $3 surcharge for long distance calls within the state and a $1.58 surcharge for local calls. The cost per minute depended on the time of day and the distance of the call and ranged from about 7 cents to 36 cents a minute. The contract was amended in 2003 to set a new flat rate for calls _ $3 per call plus 16 cents per minute for all calls, most of them from upstate prisons to relatives in the New York City area.
With the average 19-minute call costing $6, families were paying $300 to $400 in monthly charges, according to the New York Campaign for Telephone Justice."
Public pressure has actually brought phone rates down by about half, making New York State a leader in reform in this area. (Which isn't saying much.) Every state in the union unfortunately has steep charges for phone calls to prisons within their boundaries. Many Americans on the other hand have phone service that is a flat fee for nationwide service.
There is a component of imprisonment that is not only rehabilitation and restitution but punishment as well. It is tempting for many to shrug off expensive phone calls as the price of a life of crime. But phone calls are different. Many people are in prison for fairly short stretches. They have a wife and children and the family responsibilities that go with it. Maintaining contact with spouses and children can have a stabilising effect for those who see the need to turn their lives around. Money saved by the state through charging for phone calls will be more than offset by the cost in families that break up during a term of incarceration. Facilitating family unity through phone calls , family visits and even furloughs before discharge should be seen as an investment in stabilising a troubled family. A high percentage of broken families end up on public assistance. There is a high incidence of psychological and behavioral problems among families with a family member in prison. Alleviating the problems of such families ultimately benefits the public.
There is nothing wrong with austerity and the measured punishment of a prison regimen. But prisoners remain human beings. Treating them with measured and sensible compassion could benefit greatly some prison inmates who will be returning to society.
Despite the economic difficulties we face as a nation, we should think very carefully about what we do to save money and whether the human cost involved is too high a price to pay. The anger of aggrieved law abiding citizens should be tempered with mercy. It's the right thing to do.
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