When communication is not free

In the wake of so many news stories related to issues of surveillance and privacy, it’s perhaps particularly important to note that tomorrow, the FCC will consider an action that has the potential to reshape access to ICTs for one of the most heavily surveilled populations in the world – those who are incarcerated. While many of us who are economically and legally privileged worry about how to protect (or whether it’s even possible to have) a sense of privacy when we make cell phone calls or write emails or conduct online searches, the FCC’s decision would be welcomed by many for whom basic access to landline calls is the primary concern of communication. 
Although I’ve been interested in issues of information inequality as experienced in prisons for some time, I was mostly thinking about collection development policies of prison libraries, and the politics of telephone communications were new to me (although not to Steven Jackson, who has a terrific article from 2005 on the political economy of the prison telephone industry; it goes without saying that it’s also not news to the 2 million + people currently serving time in U.S. prisons). For some context, the FCC is addressing longstanding initiatives (filed with the FCC in 2003 and 2007) proposing oversight of and guidelines for phone services to prisoners.  Incarcerated people have severely restricted access to forms of communication, which has led to some remarkable workarounds for those facing extreme isolation. Among the general population, for whom phone calls are technically allowed but not necessarily accessible, inmates are typically limited to collect or debit-based calling from payphones (calls that are legally monitored by prison staff).  Collect calls from prisons usually involve a two part charge – a per-call set up charge and a per-minute charge (debit calls are charged to an inmate’s account and typically incurs just the per-minute charge). The amount of per-call charges varies wildly from one institutions (and one state) to another. A 15 minute phone call can cost as much as $20, as opposed to the mere cents that the same call would cost outside prison walls – or indeed from prison staff within the same walls.
In some ways, the story of this particular set of socio-technical inequalities is tied to complexities of monopolies – the 1984 break-up of AT&T meant that a range of fledgling companies could compete for bids to provide phone service. But in the topsy-turvy world of doing business with prisons, this bidding process does not result in driving down prices. Instead, there’s evidence to suggest that companies in fact compete to provide the highest fees, and thus the biggest kickbacks to the state. By some estimates, as much as 60% of what incarcerated folks and their families pay goes to the state government. Eight states (Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Michigan, South Carolina, California and Missouri) have banned kickbacks entirely; New Hampshire, Kansas and Arkansas have reduced their kickback commissions, and Montana recently entered into a limited-commission contract. As a result, prison phone rates in those states have plummeted. The FCC decision could provide exactly the kind of regulation that would make it much more difficult in remaining states for prisons and phone companies to take advantage of a group of people with few legal rights and intensely restricted access to tools of basic communication.
There are a number of reasons that this decision matters.  To deal first with some of the most obvious points: regular telephone contact with family has been linked to reduced recidivism, meaning that even those with the most conservative policies on the purpose of prisons should see reason to support affordable phone calls.  Keep in mind, no one here is arguing to subsidize prison phone calls, only to bring the cost of making those calls in line with what the rest of society pays. Of course, it’s somewhat naïve to think that reducing the amount of money states get in the form of phone company kick backs won’t result in decreased services elsewhere, given that prisons are already operating along an ethic of mercenary frugality. 
The FCC decision stands to intervene in a system in which costs of basic communication are borne disproportionately by people of color and the poor, because that is who goes to prison in the United States.  It is perverse that the country with the highest rate of incarceration and third highest rate of (cell) phone use (rates of landline adoption are a little harder to find) has shown no interest in making sure that the two converge.  Structural inequalities of race and class are fundamental to explaining this gap.
Beyond my hopes that the FCC decides to intervene, as someone who studies information inequality and is interested in forms of information activism, the politics of prison phone calls is moreover useful as a reminder that studying divergent uses of technology is not just about the most sophisticated ICTs but also about technologies that are functionally much simpler, although no less complex in their entanglements with power, legitimacy and legal structures.

2 thoughts on “When communication is not free

  1. ron day

    This is an important area of study and on a very under-reported or non-reported issue. I very much appreciate being alerted to this issue in such a well-rounded fashion. More work should be done on prison populations in the U.S. (and elsewhere). As usual, inequality strikes not once, but more times on the same populations.

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