The Lines of Connection

States make millions off phone-call fees from incarcerated people, but the cost can be even higher for their families.

A photograph of a hand dialing on a landline phone
John Moore / Getty

About the author: Clint Smith is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He is the author of the poetry collection Counting Descent and the narrative nonfiction book How the Word Is Passed.

Updated at 8:07 p.m. ET on July 29, 2021

In the opening pages of her new memoir, Somebody’s Daughter, the writer Ashley C. Ford describes growing up with an incarcerated father, who was sentenced when she was just 10 months old. He would spend the next 30 years in prison; he was released in 2019. In the book, part of what Ford writes about is how so much of her life—and the lives of those around her—was shaped by his absence.

To the extent that they were able to maintain a relationship, Ford and her father did so largely through letters they exchanged over the course of those three decades. When things were going well, Ford, a friend of mine, would share what she was learning in school and the small but notable things happening in her life. Her father, in turn, would share how proud he was and how much he loved her. But 30 years is a long time, and while her father remained in prison, Ford was growing, changing, and learning who she was in the world. As a result, sometimes, for extended stretches of time, she didn’t write to her father as often as she once had. This wasn’t necessarily personal, she says, but keeping the correspondence going was hard. He accepted this, she wrote in her memoir: “‘That’s okay, baby,’ my father would say, when I tried to apologize on the phone for not writing. ‘You write me when you want to. I’ll be waiting patiently, happily.’”


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One of the reasons I was drawn to Ford’s book was because it captured with nuance and honesty some of the emotional terrain of life for an incarcerated adult’s child in ways that I had not encountered before in literature. On its face, the idea of a small child exchanging letters with her incarcerated father can seem moving—powerful, even—but as I continued to read about these letters, I took note of the conspicuous rarity of other types of communication, specifically phone calls.

I’ve been thinking about Ford, and other children with parents who have been incarcerated, because last month the state of Connecticut became the first state in the country to make all outgoing phone calls from both youth detention centers and state prisons free for incarcerated people. (A few cities, such as New York City, San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles, have also made phone calls from prison free.) The Connecticut law, which goes into effect July 1, 2022, has the potential to transform the lives and relationships of people like Ford and her father.

For millions of incarcerated people in America, phone calls are vital lines of connection to their loved ones. But for many, such communication has been obstructed by exorbitant costs, though fees vary greatly from state to state. For example, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, in 2018 a 15-minute in-state phone call from a state prison in Arkansas ($4.80) cost 34 times more than a 15-minute in-state call from a state prison in Illinois ($0.14).

After finishing Ford’s book, I spoke with her about her father’s time in prison and learned that the high cost of phone calls indeed shaped how she and her family communicated, or didn’t, with her father. It wasn’t that she wrote him letters because that was the primary way she had wanted to communicate with him; it was the only way she could afford to. “A few times when he tried to call collect it did not go over well,” Ford told me. “My mom had to tell him, ‘Please do not call collect, because the kids will accept it and they don’t know what it means, and then they talk to you for a long time, and then I have this huge bill I can’t pay.’”

Ford says that her father didn’t want to make things harder on the family than they already were, so instead of making calls that would be charged to Ford’s mother, he would call only when he could afford it himself, which wasn’t often. “That was tough because he also just had to hope we were home when he called,” she said. Sometimes, if the family was lucky, they would get a short voicemail, which would mean Ford could hear her father’s voice on repeat over and over again.

During a public hearing for the bill on March 22, people who had been directly affected by the high cost of prison phone calls reaffirmed many of the points Ford shared with me—that these steep rates prohibit people from staying in touch with those they love. Husbands and wives. Brothers and sisters. Parents and children. Recent estimates show that 2.7 million American children have a parent who is incarcerated, and more than 5 million children—7 percent of all American children—have had a parent who was held in prison or jail at some point.

When Diane Lewis’s son was incarcerated at the age of 17 she feared for his safety, as did he. She’d promised him they would speak every day, but the cost of those calls had disastrous consequences. “It wasn’t long before the utilities were being cut off; the gas was being cut off; I was late on rent,” she said during the hearing. “But I made sacrifices like a mother does. I didn’t really have to eat lunch every day, and I could borrow a few dollars to cover a few phone calls until I got paid again.” Lewis, who worked with the nonprofit advocacy organization Worth Rises in pushing for the legislation, has a story that is all too common among the millions of people with incarcerated loved ones.

Steve Stafstrom, who is the chair of the judiciary committee of the Connecticut House of Representatives, said toward the end of the hearing, “One of the things that will stick with me for a while after leaving here today is the thought of having to choose between being able to have a dad communicate with his kids and [affording] to eat. I can’t imagine in this country and in this state that that’s a decision anyone should have to make.”

In some ways it is surprising that Connecticut is the first state in the country to say it will provide free phone calls from state prisons, because the state has had one of the highest prison-phone-call rates in the country—nearly $5 for a 15-minute call. What’s more, as a result of its contract with Securus Technologies, one of the largest prison-phone-call vendors in the nation, the state raked in a 68 percent commission on in-state calls from state prisons, which in 2019 translated to about $7 million.

The bill also protects in-person visitation, to guard against the risk that the free phone calls might somehow be used by correctional facilities as a way to prevent or scale such visits back. What’s more, the Connecticut House of Representatives included language in its budget implementer—a major piece of legislation that instructs the state on how to execute the state’s budget—that allots a minimum of 90 minutes of call time a day to those in prison.

Not only is staying in touch good for children; it is essential for incarcerated adults as well. According to a report from the Vera Institute of Justice, “Research on people returning from prison shows that family members can be valuable sources of support during incarceration and after release. For example, prison inmates who had more contact with their families and who reported positive relationships overall are less likely to be re-incarcerated.”

I asked Ford how her childhood would have been different if she had been able to communicate more regularly with her father. “I would have had an opportunity to build a relationship with him that was based in reality, instead of something that was mostly a fantasy,” she told me.

“When a parent is gone, you really try to fill in that hole,” she went on. “And if you can’t get information about who they are, especially when you’re really little, you will just come up with things that comfort you or come up with things that you would really like to be true. And you look for evidence that those things are true. Honestly, I think it teaches you how to deceive yourself in a certain way. And unfortunately, that’s a really hard practice to get out of. And I wish I got more of an opportunity to just … know who my dad was.”