Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Keeping in Touch With a Parent in Prison

I am not a big fan of the NY Times Editorial page (lately my dedication to its other pages hasn't been to high either.) Nevertheless when the old gray lady is right I think she deserves the credit.

This is definitely one of my pet peeves. Most people are not convicted of a crime while being housed at the Nassau County (NY) Correctional Center. Nonetheless they are cut off from those that can most help them and can most counsel them by a series of what I think are very unfair rules that make it nearly impossible for the poor (and like it or not it is usually the poor who wind up in jail, the rich can make bail)to maintain important relationships at a time when they matter most. These rules limit phone time and jail visits. They schedule visits for inconvientent periods and require long waiting periods before the inmate may be seen. In all it is very hard for all but the most motivated family to see a loved one.

Here is the NY Times take on the issue:



"New York Times
January 14, 2006

Editorial

Keeping in Touch With a Parent in Prison


One way to cut down on the number of inmates who end up right back in
prison shortly after being released is to make sure that they preserve their
ties with their families, especially with spouses and children, while they
are serving time. But keeping in touch is often impossible for inmates and
their families because of state prison systems that earn huge profits from
inmates'phone calls by forcing the family members who receive those collect
calls to pay usurious rates. As a result, a family must often choose between talking
to a loved one in prison and putting food on the table.

A bill introduced in Congress by Representative Bobby Rush, Democrat
of Illinois, would help end this shameful practice by requiring the
Federal Communications Commission to set fair rates for interstate phone calls
made from prison. The bill will surely face fierce opposition from the
telecommunications lobby and from state prison systems that have grown accustomed to gouging the poorest families in the country to subsidize some prison-related
activities. But the current arrangement is both counterproductive and morally
indefensible.

State prison systems typically use telephone setups that permit only
collect calls, made through providers that keep a monopoly on prison telephone
service by paying the states a "commission" - essentially a legal
kickback. The kickback does not materialize out of thin air. The people who receive
the phone calls often pay as much as six times the going rate. Not surprisingly,
the costs discourage inmates from keeping in touch with spouses and
children who may live hundreds of miles away and find it difficult or impossible to
visit.

Federal prisons use a significantly less expensive debit-calling
system, which lets inmates use the money accumulated in computer-controlled
accounts to place easily monitored calls to a limited group of phone numbers. The
Rush bill would require prisons to use both collect-calling and
debit-calling systems. It would also prohibit providers from paying kickbacks to
prison systems, and would require each prison system to allow more than one phone
company to enter the market. In addition, the law would not let prison phone
providers refuse to place calls to phone numbers served by rival companies.

Prison systems are likely to argue that the current arrangement is
just fine because it helps pay for programs that benefit the inmates. But the
high phone rates are actually a hidden tax on people who already pay for
the prisons through their taxes. Beyond that, the states should not be in the
business of bleeding low-income families - and fraying already fragile family ties
- to pay for services that the state itself is obligated to provide."

That Lawyer Dude:

In short, when some one is arrested but not yet convicted, the government should not be able to stamp out that person's right to communicate with his family and lawyers.
After all, who do most of us turn to when we have problems? Our families. However prisoners have no lobby in the legislature. It is almost painless for politicians to deprive prisoners basic human rights and needs to "save money", after all they are accused of a crime, what do they deserve? We deny accused prisioners ample visiting hours; jails make visiting unpleasant and inconvienient; We make communication difficult and unfairly costly.

I do not suggest that jail should be a pleasant circumstance, however to do this pre-conviction seems unfair. The truth is, most people are in jail pre-trial, because they cannot afford even a minimal bail, not because their alleged crime is any worse than someone who is not in jail. People who work in the jails make calls from the facility all day long. Not all calls are business related. We pay for those calls. Is it so unfair to ask that the inmate pays what we pay for the calls they make?

We would do well to remember the words of President John F.Kennedy at his Inauguration. "A people are not judged by how they treated the best of us, but rather how they treated the least among us."
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