Isolation, incarceration, and the prison telecommunications industry
BY MARIA ANTONIA SENDAS
“Suddenly women are shouting from high up, and balled-up bits of paper are scattered on the sidewalk like fat, chewed up pearls, and I want to open one, because they seem to have dropped from a distant world.
‘This is not right,’ my father says grimly.
I always feel like I’m dreaming when I walk by the ladies’ house of detention. It’s tall, with columns of dark windows, and it’s a prison, yet ladies are calling out from the inside, and I don’t understand what they’re shouting. If they are locked up and out of reach, how can they drop these wadded papers? What are they trying to say? We walk downtown some more, on narrow streets. Finally I ask, ‘Why do they drop those paper balls?’
My mother sighs. ‘They write down their names and phone numbers on those slips,’ she says. ‘They’re shouting for people to call their husbands and children, and give them messages.’
‘Like what messages?’ I’m thrilled. These little white balls are like light from stars that died long ago.
‘I love you,’ my mother says brightly. ‘What else?’”
AT JUST 19 YEARS OLD, Serena Liguori was incarcerated and placed in protective custody.
Protective custody, while purporting to shield incarcerated people from harm, ultimately mirrors the experience of solitary confinement. Liguori remained in her cell for 23 hours a day. During her remaining hour, Liguori showered, made food, did her laundry, and called her family. With the spread of COVID-19 in prisons across the United States, prisons and jails nationwide have increased their use of solitary confinement and protective custody to mitigate the transmission of COVID-19.
“There isn’t enough time to help people behind bars have a humane way of living and have that connection with the outside world,” Liguori told The Politic.
It’s Tuesday, November 3—roughly eight months since the pandemic began. The bold white number on the screen grows from 0 to 169,286 as The Marshall Project’s main page loads. The Marshall Project, an online journalism organization dedicated to criminal justice issues, is tracking the spread of COVID-19 in prisons across the United States. Since April, there have been at least 1,363 reported COVID-19-related prisoner deaths in the U.S., with cumulative coronavirus cases among incarcerated people nearly five times higher than that of America’s general population. Greater virus transmission rates in prisons are the result of overcrowded and unsanitary correctional facilities and the vulnerability of elderly or sick incarcerated people. Citing these numbers, advocates have called to reduce the number of people held in custody to help protect incarcerated individuals from the coronavirus.
Along with the massive rise in national unemployment, the pandemic has exacerbated many Americans’ mental health struggles, causing an overall increase in depression and anxiety. To offset the emotional toll of the pandemic, experts recommend getting outside and utilizing mental health resources and technology to speak with friends and family members. Those disconnected from their traditional support networks have learned that these methods for maintaining and promoting mental, emotional, and physical well-being are not “options,” but bare necessities—ones largely denied for the incarcerated.
The mental health impacts of the coronavirus are further exacerbated by barriers to communication for those in prison. For years, the prison telecommunications industry has imposed prohibitive costs on the exchange of phone calls, text messages, or letters with those incarcerated.
Abby Leighton ’24 and Naheem Watson ’24 are the Project Heads for Free Prison Phone Calls, a group supported by the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project. They have worked with Worth Rises, a national advocacy organization pushing for free prison phone calls in many states.
While jobs for those incarcerated can pay as little as 12 cents per hour, phone calls to the outside world can cost up to one dollar per minute, Leighton and Watson explained in an email interview with The Politic. This financial levy blocks communication between the incarcerated individuals—the majority of whom come from low-income backgrounds—and their families, friends, and vital support networks on the outside.
The pandemic’s resulting economic downturn has exposed how this disconnect disproportionately affects working-class families. Unemployment levels have reached historic records in the last few months, and while some people are finding new sources of income, many are still in vulnerable and unstable situations.
This is what Free Prison Phone Calls seeks to change. “Prison is already a lonely and isolated place,” Leighton and Watson said. “Free phone calls are one step that can relieve the financial and emotional toll that incarceration has on people and their families.”
“I think the biggest misconception that people have about prison is that ‘the state’ pays for everything. No one realizes that it’s the friends and families of loved ones that pay.”
TWO COMPANIES—Securus and Global Tel Link (GTL)—have the power to dictate the cost of communication for America’s 1.5 million plus incarcerated people. Securus serves over 3,400 correctional facilities in the country, while GTL provides services for more than 2,400. The very existence of this duopoly exploits incarcerated people and their families: Due to these giants’ influence, there exists no competition to moderate the providers’ high prices.
“What we’ve seen in the past is that the telecom companies that offer phone call services to prisons and jails will charge rates that are much higher than necessary,” Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) Communications Strategist Wanda Bertram told The Politic.
Together, Securus and GTL have sent one in three families communicating with an incarcerated loved one into debt due to the high communication cost.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has capped the cost of out-of-state phone calls from jails and prisons at 21 cents a minute, according to a PPI report. But when Securus and GTL add hidden fees to the overall cost of calls—which includes costs to open and maintain an account or receive paper bills, among others—they can technically respect the FCC’s cap on prison phone rates while creating a new source of revenue on which they are not required to pay commissions to prison facilities. In addition, by buying out non-telephone companies that provide other services like videoconference technology, electronic tablets, and money transfer for commissary accounts, they can offer “bundled contracts” to jails and prisons, which combine phone contracts with other services and allow them to charge higher prices.
These contracts allow providers to “shift profits from one service to another, thereby hiding the real costs of each service from the facility,” the PPI reported. “Bundling also ‘locks in’ contracts for the provider: It makes it more difficult for the facility to change vendors in the future, because the facility must now change their phone, email, commissary, and banking systems all at the same time.”
But the telecom companies are able to keep the prison facilities satisfied by sharing a portion of their revenue with them. Though they manage to keep some costs hidden from both the users and the facilities, as the PPI report outlines, they still kick back part of the revenue to the facility to incentivize prisons and jails to work with them, Bertram explained.
According to Bertram, the PPI is currently advocating in Iowa—where the Utilities Board is considering regulating the costs of phone calls from jails. Similar to Iowa, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has recently signaled its intention to regulate the capping of prison and jail telephone calls. She explained that the PPI immediately drafted a comment “to make sure that the CPUC understood just how big of an issue this is and urging the CPUC to take big bold action.”
“There’s a lot of different ways counties and cities can bring down the cost of phone calls and video calls, and we’re trying to follow up on all possible happenings,” Bertram continued. “[The PPI has] been advocating to the Federal Communications Commission for years, [as the FCC has] the power to regulate the cost that the companies impose on customers and lobbying public utilities for it.”
This action can come on at the grassroots level as well. Liguori, after completing her incarceration and surviving solitary confinement, dedicated her life to prison reform and has worked tirelessly to support women whose lives have been torn apart by the carceral system. Currently, Liguori is the Executive Director of New Hour for Women and Children, a Long Island-based nonprofit organization dedicated to women and children impacted by incarceration.
“I think back to my own time being incarcerated, and the enormous burden it was for my younger sister to accept my collect phone calls,” Liguori said. “And [the price of phone calls] limits the amount of support you can receive because you feel bad calling someone and spending their money at 15 dollars a call.”
Since New Hour accepts collect calls from women, Liguori explained, members of the organization have witnessed the high level of anxiety within prisons and jails during the pandemic.
“One of the things that the sheriff’s office did here in Suffolk [County] is they allowed women to have [one] free collect phone call. And that’s great, but I’d love to see that happen for all the women everywhere, every day. The levels of depression and anxiety go up when you’re incarcerated,” Liguori said. “Most of the women incarcerated during COVID-19 weren’t even worrying about themselves—they’re worrying about their children and loved ones.”
Still, the issue of predatory prison communication costs persists. Eager to combat this, two Yale students created Ameelio, a technology start-up that allows users to freely communicate with incarcerated loved ones. Co-founded in 2019 by Uzoma “Zo” Orchingwa YLS ’22 and Gabriel Saruhashi ’21, the app aims to dismantle the carceral system’s financial barriers to communication that separate families, thereby disrupting the entire prison telecommunications industry, which boasts 1.2 billion dollars a year in profits.
According to Orchingwa, Ameelio is the first free prison communications platform in the United States, allowing users to send free letters, photos, postcards, and art to incarcerated loved ones. Through the app, users can write a 9,000 character message and include attachments. The message is converted into a physical letter, which is sent to the facility through an automated third-party service. Early next year, Ameelio plans to launch a free prison video-calling service, which will “enable families to have real-time video communication with incarcerated loved ones,” Orchingwa said.
Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, Ameelio has served over 50,000 families and incarcerated individuals and sent over 100,000 free letters and postcards to facilities. The Robin Hood Foundation, Mozilla Foundation, Fast Forward, CEO of Twitter and Square Jack Dorsey, and former CEO of Google Eric Schmidt are just some of Ameelio’s most well-known supporters.
“Ameelio’s mission is to fundamentally transform this industry,” Orchingwa told The Politic. “To use technology to accelerate the creation of a more humane and rehabilitative justice system. We will continue to build free communication tools in order to reconnect incarcerated people with their families and relevant resources to help them successfully reintegrate into society.”
A deadly pandemic like we are facing now is even deadlier in prisons all over the world. My best friend is incarcerated in Florida, where we happen to have several cases of the virus. His facility is on restricted movement, lines for the phones and computers are much longer, and calls have been restricted to only 10 minutes.
WHEN PRISONS suspended in-person visitations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they also increased the financial barrier to communication for incarcerated populations.
Writer and decarceration activist Sarah Resnick spoke to The Politic about her experience as a volunteer for the Parole Preparation Project NY, an organization dedicated to supporting people serving indeterminate sentences and transforming the parole system in the state, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the pandemic began, Resnick began working on medical
clemency appeals. As part of the Parole Preparation Project’s effort to raise commissary funds for people in prison, she began sending people money out of her own pocket through JPay, a correctional money transfer service owned by Securus. With a few extra dollars, Resnick hoped that those inside could afford basic medical necessities in case there was a lockdown.
“Everything about being incarcerated is really expensive. Too expensive…. They find every way to punish you,” she told The Politic.
As she was sending them money through JPay, inmates could then contact her directly through the platform, which encompasses email service, video visitation, and other features in addition to money transfer. This channel allowed them to air grievances that revealed the tragic realities of the prison telecommunications industry during COVID-19: In their letters and emails, Resnick’s incarcerated clients expressed fear about additional dangers of COVID-19 within prisons and having limited access to information about the dangers of the virus because of the expense of communication.
“Approximately 4,800 characters [about 800 words] requires one ‘stamp,’” Resnick wrote in an essay for n+1. “Longer emails require more stamps. Each attachment requires one stamp. Each thirty-second ‘video gram’ requires four stamps. Ten stamps cost 3 dollars. One hundred stamps cost 23 dollars.”
Resnick explained that because of suspended in-person visitations, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) has granted each person one free phone call, two free emails, and five free postage stamps per week. Resnick wrote that the DOCCS would increase the number of calls to two.
Meanwhile, many other local and state governments have done the opposite. According to Leighton and Watson, some states have decided to roll back initiatives from earlier in the pandemic that provided more phone calls to incarcerated individuals. Officials have justified this by claiming that in-person visitations will be resumed soon, even though they are still not safe for many families.
With limited external communication in the best of times, information about health violations taking place during the pandemic inside prisons has reached few in the outside world. Speaking to this, Resnick described her correspondence with inmates as “heartbreaking.”
Some emails, Resnick shared, complained about the lack or under-enforcement of health protocols by correctional institutions, which has led to a failure in protecting vulnerable or older people with underlying health conditions. Other emails expressed confusion about transferring people to other prisons, an action that seemed counterproductive in slowing the spread of the virus. Still others contained frustrated words about the DOCCS’s censorship of messages, including information about what is going on inside.
“I don’t even really know how to describe how terrible it was to read these fearful emails and feel really scared myself out here. I was blown away by the disparity between what I was reading—what people were saying about the circumstances inside— and what our politicians were saying,” Resnick told The Politic.
PPI’s Bertram mirrored her concern. “It makes a lot of sense that there [is a] deep mistrust of official information sources. [Incarcerated people] need information about the virus and they need it from their family and their loved ones,” she emphasized.
“At the beginning of the pandemic,” Resnick said, “none of us really understood how to mitigate the virus, even for ourselves, as the health guidance was consistently changing. Translate that into a space where you can think of information arriving there [in] a slightly delayed fashion, or always third or fourth hand, so it’s never really coming direct from the source and the way that, you know, those kinds of things can quickly become misinformation, or rumors.”
Playing on irony, given what she feels is New York’s failure to protect the humanity of its incarcerated population, Resnick quoted Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo’s motto throughout the pandemic: “Practice humanity.”
My husband and I normally would talk on the phone 4 times a day and send messages 3 to 4 times a day, along with visits every Saturday and Sunday. The pandemic of Covid-19 has drastically changed our lives. For months now we have not been allowed to visit. I started using Ameelio.org to be able to send him extra love and it was great because I could send a picture with each letter. Then came the lockdown/quarantine of the whole prison. We could no longer talk on the phone or send messages. The only communication we had were letters. Inmates were allowed to call home twice a week but the phones in my husband’s dorm were broke[n] (so no phone calls for us).
AMEELIO’S ORCHINGWA told The Politic that the coronavirus has made an already-terrible situation even worse. Other experts agree.
“We’ve seen pretty substantial increases in reports of depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts in those who are currently incarcerated,” explained Dr. Arielle Baskin-Sommers, Associate Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Yale, in an interview with The Politic. Baskin-Sommers studies the psychological underpinnings of phenomena associated with criminality, and she is worried about the effects of COVID-19 on this vulnerable population.
“Those who are incarcerated have higher rates of those experiences to begin with,” said Baskin-Sommers. “[And now], they have been completely cut off from contact with the outside world or any sense of comfort.”
Baskin-Sommers confirmed that many individuals who are incarcerated come from low-income neighborhoods, where COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact.
“As a result, many individuals who are incarcerated are experiencing great loss and grief because their family members are perishing as a result of the pandemic,” Baskin-Sommers said.
Those impacted by the carceral system, particularly those who live below the poverty line, are not afforded the same opportunities to recover from trauma, Liguori added. She told The Politic that New Hour, her organization, organized a visit to Cornell Cooperative Farm to give mothers, grandmothers, and children a chance to connect despite the impact of incarceration.
“Being able to offer them a safe space at a farm, fresh air, to pick a pumpkin, is not taken for granted,” Liguori said.
According to Baskin-Sommers, the stressors that everyone is experiencing are heightened for those who are incarcerated. Most people who are quarantining at home can reach out to talk to family or therapist, or access online mental health resources if they are feeling stressed or anxious. “Those who are incarcerated,” Baskin-Sommers emphasized, “cannot.”
“’I’m sorry that you have to be deprived out there. In here we laugh cuz now maybe people feel, even just a lil’, what it’s like to be locked down :-) I do want things for you to get better though. Please keep taking good care of yourself and stay strong mentally in these trying times.’”
DESPITE THE pandemic causing, as Liguori describes, “a void of information” and an atmosphere of “fear and anxiety” in prisons, there has been remarkable resilience among some of society’s most marginalized members.
“Incarcerated people and their loved ones have asked us to directly address mental health issues by providing informational postcards with resources as well as tangible activities such as games, puzzles, and uplifting literature,” Orchingwa explained.
For Liguori, what is needed now is continued discussion in the public sphere about the issues facing those incarcerated, particularly as the Black Lives Matter movement has reinvigorated the call for prison and criminal justice reform.
“Right now, we’re in this national waking up moment…but very few people are talking about incarcerated lives, an overwhelming majority of whom are Black and Hispanic. And they’re not getting any real care,” Liguori explained.
Although she has long left protective custody, Liguori is prepared to spend the rest of her life advocating for those silenced within the prison system. She emphasized, “It’s almost like it is a voiceless population that nobody hears about.”