Inmate Telephone Commission Issue
Lancaster County Prison (LCP)
Information provided by the Children of Incarcerated Parent Network of Lancaster County (COIPNLC)
Bob Cooper, coordinator
August 29, 2013
1. Issue: Lancaster County Government contracts with a telephone company to provide secure telephone service to inmates in the Lancaster County Prison (LCP). By nature of the security issues required by prison phone systems, there are only about five phone companies in the nation that provide such service. All these companies, in exchange for the county's business, pay a hefty commission (kickback) based on each inmate phone call. This has been an accepted practice throughout our country.
Since most phone calls are paid for by the inmate's family, Children of Incarcerated Parent Network of Lancaster County (COIPNLC) and Have-A-Heart strongly oppose this practice.
2. Basis of objection: Both COIPNLC and Have-A-Heart strongly oppose this practice because the families of the inmates pay for the calls. More than 25% of these children live with a grandparent or other relative. 75% live in single parent households. Because the cost of these calls is so inflated, they pose a financial burden on a family already dealing with strained financial resources.
Research clearly shows regular family contact with the inmate eases return to the family and also reduces the possibility of re-offending. We encourage regular calls from the inmate but realize this may not be possible with limited family income.
3. Alternatives: The only acceptable alternative is to charge the actual cost of the call-no commission or "kickback".
4. Procedure for inmate use of phone:
a. Calls placed only by LCP inmates, no incoming calls, no cell phones.
b. Inmates may call only persons on an approved list.
5. Public awareness: The public is only recently learning of this practice and significant pressure is encouraging municipalities and states to refuse the commission. Eight states1 have responded to the call and no longer accept a commission. Four states2 are working to phase out the practice.
Unfortunately, Pennsylvania is not one of those states. For 2013 Pennsylvania can expect to collect $16,560,0003 in commission, all paid by families of inmates in the state prison system.
6. Cost of calls:
a. Calls are paid in one of three ways: collect, inmate debit fund, or advance pay by family. Money in the inmate debit fund is usually provided by the family.
b. Calls placed from LCP include two charges: a surcharge and a per minute cost. The surcharge is a fictitious charge used to pay commission. The per minute charge varies from .05 a minute for local calls to .59 for out of state calls. This inflated per minute charge is also used to pay the commission.
A 20 minute local call costs $2.35 (.05 per minute plus $1.15 surcharge)
A 20 minute out of state call costs $14.80 (.59 per minute, $3.00 surcharge)
c. To illustrate the impact of the commission practice, when New York state eliminated commission they set the cost of all calls to .05 a minute. The effect is a 20 minute local call costs exactly the same as a 20 minute call anyplace in the country: $1.00.
d. It should be noted that the parent company of Lancaster's vendor, Inmate Telephone, Inc., services more correctional institutions than any other company. With such huge purchasing power, their per minute cost is minimal, yet they charge the inmate the inflated rate so they can pay the commission.
e. Last week, the FCC ruled that prisons may not charge more than the actual cost of an interstate call with a maximum charge of 21 cents. Lancaster County Prison is presently charging .59 a minute plus a surcharge of 3.00. A 20 minute call costs a Lancaster inmate $14.80. The family pays a commission is $8.15 for each of these calls. Under the new FCC ruling that call will cost a maximum of $4.20. Last year there were over 15,000 interstate calls from LCP resulting in a $28,000 commission for the County.
7. Lancaster's Commission: The existing contract guarantees Lancaster County a minimum monthly commission of $33,333. For the past four years the County received a commission of 55% on each inmate call. In 2012 that amounted to $409,026. (It was during the last half of 2012 that the prison population dropped from around 1,200 to below 1,000. The decrease was reflected in less commission for 2012 than the previous two years.)
8. Lancaster's contract expires in February 2014. A Request for Proposals (RFP) is currently being prepared.
9. COIPNLC Action: In 2013, on behalf of the Network, I made three presentations to the Prison Board: April 18, June 20 and August 15. All presentations asked the Board to eliminate the commission and reduce the charge to the inmates accordingly. To date there has been no indication that they will support our recommendation.
10. Inmate Welfare Fund (IWF): At the February Prison Board meeting a resolution was approved calling for $100,000 in phone commission to be deposited in the IMF. All remaining annual commission money shall be deposited in the general fund of the county to offset prison costs. Both COIPNLC and Have-A-Heart adamantly oppose having families of inmates subsidize the County's general fund.
11. What can you do? If you agree with COIPNLC and Have-A-Heart, please contact the Commissioners as soon as possible.
Office of the County Commissioners
150 North Queen Street
7th Floor, Suite 715
Lancaster, Pa. 17603
(717) 299-8300 office
Thank you for your interest,
Bob Cooper, COIPNLC Coordinator
1 Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Michigan, South Carolina, California, Missouri.
2 New Hampshire, Kansas, Arkansas, Montana
3 Andrew Filkosky, Agency Open Records Officer, Department of Corrections. July 29, 2013.
Having a parent arrested and taken to jail is an experience that lasts a lifetime. Children cannot comprehend what has happened! “Why did they take mommy away?” “Where did they take mommy?” “Will she come home tonight?” are all typical questions children ask. They simply can’t relate to what has happened and will often feel that, in some way, they are responsible.
On the other hand the adults in the family may also be in a state of shock and disbelief. They get preoccupied with their own concerns and the children are unintentionally ignored. The children are left with unanswered questions or short, curt answers that only increases their turmoil. They are expected to go to school the next day and try hard to pretend everything is OK! They know when they go home after school mommy will not be there and, tragically, they have no idea who will be there!
The big question is
how can we help these children early in the process so that their fears and concerns do not result in acting out behavior?
SESAME STREET comes to our rescue with LITTLE CHILDREN: BIG CHALLENGES! INCARCERATION! They are the first national children’s programming organization to recognize how widespread this problem is and they have prepared simple materials explaining all to the children. To give you an idea how widespread this problem is, we estimate as many as 1,000 children in Lancaster County have at least one parent in local, state or federal prison.
The SESAME program includes videos for the kids to watch and materials to read and work sheets that can be printed on your home printer. In addition to tmaterials for children there are also materials for parents and caregivers. Go to the website to get started: http://www.sesamestreet.org/parents/topicsandactivities/toolkits/incarceration#0
Our childhood experiences shape much of our adult lives. Children who live with these kinds of questions, many of which are not answered to their satisfaction, experience trauma as a result. Frequently that leads to their general mistrust of authority, especially the legal system. Not having their questions answered can also lead children to blame themselves for their parents' absence or to believe that they are destined to follow in their parents' footsteps.
Here are questions that children whose parents are incarcerated often ask, along with suggestions about how to answer them.
1. Where is my Mom or Dad? Parents and caregivers often believe it is best to protect children by not telling them where their mothers or fathers really are. Children may be told that their parents are working in another state, going to school, or serving in the military. Sometimes children are told that their parents are ill and had to go away for special treatment.
Sooner or later children will realize the truth and know they have been lied to. This tends to hurt their relationship with the persons who have told them the untrue stories and can lead to feelings of distrust that affect their other relationships as well.
While the adult who hides painful reality does so believing it is in the best interest of the child, such an action (or inaction) creates a family secret that results in children feeling ashamed. Most childhood experts advise that children be told the truth.
2. When is he or she coming home? The outcome and schedule of a parent's arrest and/or imprisonment is often uncertain. However, it is important to keep children up-to-date about what parents or caregivers do know. Children need to have concrete information they can deal with, even if it is, "We don't know what will happen yet."
3. Why is she or he in jail or prison? Sometimes an innocent person is arrested. But when a parent has done wrong, it is important that this wrongdoing is acknowledged. Children need to know that there are consequences when people do things that are against the law or harmful to others.
At the same time, they also need to be reassured that even if someone sometimes does something wrong, it doesn't mean that s/he is necessarily a bad person. While a child's parent may be serving the consequences for something wrong s/he did, the parent is still worthy of love and capable of loving.
A child can learn to trust a caregiver who is honest about what a parent has done wrong. This practice of honesty allows the child to believe other things that the caregiver tells her or him as they progress together on this journey.
4. Can I talk to my mom or dad? Jails and prisons have specific and often constraining rules about prisoners talking on the phone to their loved ones. Phone calls from prison are often quite expensive and restricted in length. Many times a parent does not have enough money to call home because it is so expensive.
When phone calls are difficult, letters can be especially important. Although young children may find it hard to express themselves through words, they may find it more meaningful to make drawings. As Stacy Bouchet, now an adult, suggests in her reflections, children often treasure the notes and letters they receive from their parents, as she did from her father.
5. When can I see my mom or dad? It is helpful to explain to children that prisons have specific times for visiting, and their caretakers will get that information so that they can see their loved ones. If a parent is incarcerated at a distance, the child should be prepared for seeing his or her mother or father infrequently.
Some children are angry and do not want to see their parents, or at least they're ambivalent about the possibility. In general, though, it seems important for children to visit their parents as regularly as possible.
Before the first visit, they should be prepared for the circumstances of the visit. The caregiver should explain the security around the prison. The children should also know that there will be limits upon where they can visit and what they can do with their parents.
Most children want to know what their parent's life is like in prison. They may imagine frightening scenarios. Giving them a sense of mundane details of everyday life in prison can be helpful. If the child is interested, a caregiver can encourage the parent to describe his or her cell or room and tell what a normal day is like.
6. Who is going to take care of me? Children in this situation often feel insecure. It is important to let children know who will be caring for them. If there is uncertainty about their living arrangements, children may need to be told that, but they also need to be reassured that plans for their care are being made and that they will not be abandoned. As much as possible, they need stability in their living situations and their relationships.
7. Do my parents still love me? When children are separated from their parents, they often worry about whether their parents love and care for them. Most children need reassurance that they are loved by their parents no matter where the children happen to be living and with whom. They also value other loving relationships in their lives, but they still want to know about their parents' interest and love.
8. Is this my fault? Children often blame themselves for being separated from their parents or even for their parents' misbehavior. They may imagine that if they had behaved better their parents would still be with them. They need reassurance on three fronts: that what happened to their loved one is not their fault, that it happened because that person did something wrong or harmful, and that this does not mean that their parent is a bad person.
9. Why do I feel so sad and angry? Sadness and anger are children's common responses to a parent's incarceration. But most children do not understand their feelings or the origins of them. It is helpful for them to be reassured that their feelings are normal. Ideally, they can be encouraged to talk about their feelings of sadness or anger. If they cannot talk to their immediate caregivers such as their grandparents, they can be invited to talk to school counselors or social workers or even friends. Children often find it helpful to know other children in similar situations because they can understand each other's feelings. Children who find it hard to articulate their feelings can be encouraged to express them through their drawings or other art work.
10. Can I do something to help? Children typically feel helpless and responsible. They need to know that their loved ones usually appreciate letters and pictures. They can be encouraged to send them as often as they want to.
Excerpt from What Will Happen to Me? by Howard Zehr and Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz. Good Books; 2010.