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In OR Prisons, a Mother's Day “Hangup”

May 11, 2012

PORTLAND, Ore. – Calling Mom on Mother's Day this weekend will be an expensive proposition if you're in prison. In Oregon, people who are incarcerated pay a service charge of $2.64 for local calls - and for long distance, $3.95 plus 69 to 89 cents per minute. Attorney Lee Petro, an expert on prison telephone service contracts, says jails and prisons have deals with service providers that benefit the companies and give commissions or "kickbacks" to state and county governments - while making it harder for family members to afford to stay in touch.

"You know it's a proven fact, over and over again, that the level of contact they had while they were in prison - with their family and their social network - renders their reentry into society more beneficial, more stable, and they are less likely to commit crime down the line."

Last year, Oregon's prison phone service provider, Value-Added Communications of Texas, was caught violating its contract by raising rates without the required 30-day notice. The rates were reduced the same week. The company has since been acquired by Global Tel-Link of Alabama, the nation's largest provider.

The Oregon Department of Corrections says money it gets from the contract is part of a $9.9 million "Inmate Welfare Fund," and is used on programs that it says "directly benefit inmates."

Steven Renderos with the Center for Media Justice is an organizer of a Mother's Day of Action today. On the website PhoneJustice.org, his group is collecting stories about prisoners and families affected by the high-cost phone calls.

"It's an opportunity to elevate stories from families, from people who have loved ones behind bars. And we're going to send those stories directly to the FCC, because the Federal Communications Commission has a direct role to play in addressing the rates of phone calls within prisons."

Historically, they've been rationalized by the need to monitor jailhouse calls. Critics of the contract system say technology has brought those costs down, but inmates and their families continue to pay higher prices to stay in contact.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR