Inmates and their relatives pay steep phone bills to keep in touch, and prison phone companies rake in billions. The Federal Communications Commission moved to cap those rates last week because it isn’t only the inmate who pays the price.
Jazlin Mendoza is a CNM student studying social work. Her father’s been locked up for 12 years. And once a month, they talk on the phone. "My grandparents send him at least $200 each month. From there he has to calculate what he’s going to use the money towards," she said.
So when they get the chance, what do they talk about?
"Well, really it’s not a lot I could tell him," she said. "It’s more of like, 'Daddy I miss you, I love you, and we are OK.' "
Mendoza is a member of local youth media organization Generation Justice and works with the Media Action Grassroots Network. She spoke at a congressional hearing on prison phone rates and met with FCC commissioners and their staffs a couple of weeks before the vote.
Their decision to cap the rates hits home for her.
"It was a blessing to me and to my family, now knowing that my father could start calling more often," she said. "He could call my phone now."
Mendoza says cheaper phone calls will help her father, too. "My dad will feel more connected, more free to call. He won’t feel dehumanized," she said. "He won’t have to, like, decide whether to pick his food over a phone call."
The FCC voted to slash long-distance and local inmate calls roughly in half—from around three bucks to $1.65 for a 15-minute call. That matters for Mendoza because her father is in prison outside of New Mexico.
Commissioners also voted to ban many of the extra fees imposed by phone companies.
George Luján is the communications organizer for the SouthWest Organizing Project. "I think we can draw a direct line between the amount of connectivity that they have, the access to communication that they have, to their quality of life," he said. "So asking somebody to give up quality of life in one area to afford something else is cruel."
Luján said even though rates are lower here than elsewhere, New Mexico families are still paying big bills and going into debt so they can talk to their loved ones in jail—and they don’t have any other options. "They’re exploitive companies who are using predatory pricing on captive consumers, so there really is no choice," he said. "It isn’t a free market."
Phillip Greer is the chief of Bernalillo County’s jail. It’s the largest in the state and one of the biggest in the United States. "You know, let’s be honest: There are organizations throughout the country that have charged horrific phone rates, and I think that’s why this ruling came down," he said.
New Mexico was already ahead of the curve on limiting charges, he said, and inmates in his facility pay a flat rate (78 cents) for phone calls, regardless of length. He said the new per-minute cap might actually mean slightly higher costs for longer calls when the regulations go into effect in 2016.
"It’s a one-size-fits-all proposal," he said. "It doesn’t take into consideration states like New Mexico that already have regulations. It forces the same regulation on everyone throughout the country."
Dwayne Santistevan is with the state’s Corrections Department. He said people in prison in New Mexico already pay one of the lowest rates in the country as it is—one that's cheaper than the new FCC cap. "We’re in constant contact with the vendor," he said. "So right now at this time I don’t believe it’s going to affect New Mexico in a negative way. But you never know."
Still, Santistevan said he’s seen firsthand how conditions in a prison can improve when prisoners have cheap, regular contact with family and friends.
"If they’re a little aggressive one day and they call their mom or wife—or whoever it may be—you know, their significant other, they’re able to talk them down," he said. "So it does affect the Corrections Department in that way."
Idle inmates act out, Santistevan says. So low rates have a positive impact on security, on the mood of the prisoners—and on the families that will see them again on the outside.