In other words, this denouement was the simple result of politics. After the presidential election in November, majority control of the FCC has shifted back to the GOP and the issue of reducing prison phone rates falls along partisan lines. While this skirmish represents one relatively small component of inmate life, it also augurs badly for the future of prison reform efforts, particularly with economic burdens in mind.
From 1980 until 2013, the U.S. prison population more than quadrupled from 500,000 inmates to over two million. A recent Atlantic project details the tremendous reach of mass incarceration into the social, racial, and economic foundations of American life. One of the many results of a booming inmate population are surging costs. According to a 2015 report by the Brennan Center, more than $80 billion is spent annually on corrections, which is “about equivalent to the budget of the federal Department of Education.” The report adds that prison spending often represents the third-highest expenditure on the state level behind education and healthcare.
Many of those costs are being passed along to the inmates. This goes way beyond phone calls. Many states are charging inmates for medical visits. Or levying fees on family members to visit or communicate over video. There are stories of formerly incarcerated men in Florida receiving bills for $50,000, the cumulative effect of the state’s “pay-to-stay” law, which allows facilities to charge inmates $50 a night for the cost of their incarceration.
Ironically, technology, which has made communication cheaper for the masses, has become another mechanism for companies to extract money from prisons. Phone calls, video visitations, email accessibility, even digital commissary accounts all represent innovations that should lessen the burden of prison life, but instead, they’ve have become new streams of revenue. “The Justice Department had been championing this idea of right-sizing some of these fees,” says Eisen, noting the department’s efforts to engage with judges in different states to rule on the constitutionality of prison fines and fees.
“We’re looking at a user-funded system and that’s a common theme,” says L.B. Eisen, senior counsel of the Brennan Center's Justice Program and author of the forthcoming book Inside Private Prisons. “Fines and fees are so broad. You can look at all the fees you’re charged from arrest, booking, and then all the fees in court, pre-trial fees. Then once you’re incarcerated all the fees there. And, once you’re released, you’re in debt.”
According to the Brennan Center report, an estimated 10 million Americans now owe more than $50 billion from debts accrued during their journey through the criminal-justice system. Compound this dynamic with the Justice Department finding that 60 to 75 percent of former inmates fail to find work within the first year of being released.