Hotel guests have learned to avoid making calls from phones in their rooms because the costs can be outrageous. These days people use their cell phones instead, but that's not an option for those who stay in the sort of hotels with bars on the windows -- jails and prisons.
When it comes to exorbitant phone charges, prisoners find themselves in heartbreak hotel. As the Post-Gazette's Andrew McGill reported Sunday, an inmate in a Pennsylvania state prison dialing an out-of-state number pays an exorbitant $9.35 for a 15-minute call. In the Allegheny County Jail, the price for that call is even steeper, $10.65.
It's no better for local calls -- the price being many times higher than what someone on a pre-paid cell phone would be charged. At the county jail, a prisoner pays a $1.80 connection fee and then is charged a varying fee depending on the area code that is dialed.
Inevitably, some will argue that prisoners shouldn't be coddled and they deserve every hardship and inconvenience. Commit the crime, do the time. But making prisoners -- who are usually poor to start with -- pay way more for phone calls is simply bad public policy.
Some experts believe prisoners who keep up contact with their families do better by themselves and prison authorities. Phone calls to home give inmates an incentive to straighten out their lives and get back to their loved ones.
Clearly, state and county governments like charging prisoners more because of the revenue generated to help run prisons and jails. Last year, Pennsylvania cleared $6.9 million from prisoner phone call charges, with more than half going to the state's general fund. Allegheny County made $1.1 million for the jail's prisoner expense trust fund.
Indeed, one of the justifications for gouging prisoners on phone calls is that programs that help prisoners, such as violence prevention and vocational training, might have to be cut if prices were lowered. But corrections systems can do better than this and perhaps the fact that the Federal Communications Commission is looking into the issue will spur some rethinking.
Overcharging prisoners sends a subversive mixed message. Doesn't a criminal take advantage of someone who is vulnerable? Yet that is precisely what the prison authorities are doing. The high phone rates are what happens to a captive audience -- and inmates are the ultimate captive audience. This practice needs to be handcuffed and put away.