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  • Alice Green

The Imprisoned and Their Families Must Stay in Contact!

Written by Dr. Alice Green, April 16, 2024

Albany County Jail Photo Credit: Times Union

As reminiscent of chattel slavery in this country, our government currently allows the shameful and destructive separation of large numbers of Black, Brown and Indigenous people from their children and families. But, now the most prominent and disturbing method of that separation occurs through incarceration which often confines people far from their homes and families.  This practice flies in the face of a strong body of research documenting the benefits of maintaining such contacts which have been found to be one of the most effective rehabilitative tools to significantly reduce recidivism rates and promote public safety and public health in our communities.. 

Social justice advocates, including the Center for Law and Justice (the Center) have long called for the maintenance of connections between incarcerated people and their loved ones.  We realize that a family’s contact with each other is a basic human need confirmed by studies showing that less contact with loved ones leads to behavioral issues in incarcerated people, both while they are still in prison and post-release.

In the recent past, New York State ignored community pleas and limited or blocked access to telephones by the incarcerated and their families who struggled to maintain contact with their imprisoned loved ones even though permitted phone calls proved costly for them. 

There is a new bill that offers hope to these families.  The Connecting Families Act (A2164-AS1942-A) pending in the New York State Legislature would eliminate the cost of phone calls for incarcerated people and their families from New York State correctional facilities and youth detention centers.  The proposal would get rid of the current “collect-call” system, which greatly burdens a family member accepting a call from a state facility and would shift the cost of the call to the State.

The Bill also promises to relieve the debt families have had to bear due to communication costs, with women disproportionately covering 87% of the costs.  Furthermore, with 1 in 28 children in the State having a parent who is incarcerated, the bill will help to ensure that families can afford to maintain contact, which is essential for the well-being of children who have been referred to by The Prison Policy Initiative as the “hidden victims of incarceration.”  

It is crucial that children maintain contact with their incarcerated parents so that they know that they are loved and their parents care for them even though they are not physically present.  Without such assurances, these children are more likely to face mental health issues and legal troubles

While the Center supports this reform bill, it is important that the public understands why it is not enough. In New York State, the most expensive telephone calls for incarcerated people and their families are made from local jails which the bill does not cover.  This is partially because state law prohibits state facilities from receiving kickbacks from providers for granting the provider exclusive access to the prison population (providers will usually pass these costs along to consumers) and requires state facilities to choose the lowest-cost providers.  These provisions do not currently apply to local jails, resulting in extortionate prices.  Albany County, with a staggering 86% kickback rate, charges $7.50 per 15 minutes for a call , around 12 times the cost of a call from a State facility.  Families should not have to bear these costs, especially considering the positive impact on community healing that their connections with incarcerated loved ones provide.

Family connections are crucial.  For too long, the State has extracted needed monies from low income families of incarcerated people who are disproportionately Black, Brown, and Indigenous. The Center for Law and Justice and a host of other community groups are urging the State to provide free phone calls for all incarcerated people in New York by expanding the Connecting Families Act benefits of cost-free phone calls and the elimination of the kickback system, to local jails.  We encourage many others to support this effort that would promote public health and public safety for us all.

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