NORTH LAWNDALE — Calling home for the holidays? On the West Side Monday, Sen. Tammy Duckworth said not everyone can afford the luxury.
Duckworth (D-Ill.) visited the West Side Justice Center, 601 S. California Ave., on Monday to advocate for a bill introduced in Congress earlier this year that would end what the senator described as “predatory call rates” for people incarcerated in prisons and jails nationwide. The bipartisan Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act would give the Federal Communications Commission the authority to address unreasonably high call rates in prisons and jails across the country.
In some places, making calls from behind bars is expensive, with rates reaching up to 30 cents per minute, plus several dollars tacked on in connection fees. All told, a 15-minute phone call can cost more than $17, Duckworth said.
The high rates are caused in part by the near-monopoly in the communications industry headed by Global Tel Link and Securus Technologies, said Mignon L. Clyburn, former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission. The two companies provide service for about 70 percent of the inmate telephone market, he said.
A call from Cook County Jail is now 6 cents per minute with no connection fees added on, according to Cook County Sheriff’s office spokesman Joseph Ryan. Ryan said the Sheriff’s Office has been working aggressively to slash costs, but due to bureaucratic challenges, it has been a years-long process to get the call rates as low as they currently are.
In 2012, a 15-minute call from the Cook County Jail cost about $7. Now, it is less than $1 for the same amount of time.
Inmates at the Illinois Department of Corrections are charged 7 cents per minute for a call, down from a pre-2018 flat rate of $4.08 for a call of up to 30 minutes.
But in areas where prisoners face high rates, it can be incredibly difficult for prisoners to afford calls. In Illinois, wages for incarcerated people can be as low as 9 cents per hour, depending on the job. Families of incarcerated people are disproportionately lower income, too, making it hard even for working families to send the money to pay for the calls, Duckworth said.
Duckworth said it is essential for incarcerated people to be able to make phone calls so they can maintain their relationships with family and have a connection to the world beyond prison walls.
“During the holidays, while millions of other Americans get to connect with family and friends, the high cost of placing a call from some prisons and jails keep many of those who are incarcerated from speaking with their families. This is unacceptable and ultimately it’s counterproductive to our mutual goal of reducing recidivism,” Duckworth said.
Ryan said maintaining low call rates is a priority because speaking with loved ones on the outside is an important contributor to the mental health of those incarcerated at Cook County Jail.
“It’s critical to their general sense of wellbeing when they’re in custody. And it’s critical to them being able to reintegrate when they return,” Ryan said.
Since the vast majority of people who are incarcerated will eventually be released, the senator said it is vitally important they do not end up “alienated from their communities.” And keeping those connections also makes a person more likely to successfully re-enter society and avoid becoming incarcerated again, Duckworth said.
Clyburn said the high costs are an “injustice to over two million children who just want to keep in touch with their parents.”
As a child, both of Wandjell Browning’s parents were incarcerated for a time, she said. When she was in foster care, those pricey phone calls were her only way to stay connected to her family.
“With one parent, it’s already pretty expensive. But when you have both parents who are calling and want to speak to their child, you start to look at how much it’s costing, and you have to make a decision,” Browning said. Struggling to afford the phone calls made it difficult for her to spend time and money on other things like extracurriculars and seeing friends, she said.
“No child should be told that their love is too expensive. No child should be told that you can’t talk to them because we can’t afford it,” Browning said. “This is the basic needs that a child needs to communicate with their parents.”
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
Do stories like this matter to you? Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.