Monday, October 29, 2012

Prison inmates and their families victims of the powerful

California's Susanville prison
by Richard Mellor

Some time ago I used to visit a guy up in Susanville State Prison in the high desert, it’s quite a way from where I live in the San Francisco Bay Area.  For the mother of the guy I used to visit it was a real slog as the family were from Watts which is in LA, 500 miles from where I live.  This is not uncommon as they make life as difficult as possible for the families of prisoners.  I’ve been to parole board hearings as well, they’re some cold bastards these people. My friend was one of the organizers of the gang truce in LA and was framed by the cops.

Anyway, he used to call his mum on and off and we all see those calls in the movies as the prisoners line up to call their loved ones. There are 1.4 million incarcerated in state prisons and about another million at the federal level.

But these phone calls, that cost normal people a few cents or are included in monthly charges are very expensive for inmates who are forced to pay as much as $17 for a 15 minute call according to Bloomberg Business Week.  A fifteen minute call from Oakland to London costs me 63 cents.

The way these phone setups work is that the private companies that provide the service, or get the “excusive deals to provide service to inmates” turn a portion of their fees over to the prisons, about 42% of the total.  According to BW, forty two states received $152 million in fees in 2008. The federal government charges 6 cents a minute for calls which covered costs and raked in $34 million in profit according to the US GAO. 

This set up encourages prisons to award contracts not to lowest bidders but highest bidders in order to increase revenue; the victim being the inmate of course.  Ten years ago, a group of prisoners and their families filed a petition to halt this exorbitant fee system and want the charges for calls capped at 20c to 25c a minute which is still fairly high for a prison inmate.

The prison phone system is a $1.2 billion business that is dominated by two private equity companies, American Securities, which owns Tel*Link and Castle Harlan which owns the other one, Securus.  In other words, the same coupon clippers that want to get their dirty little paws on public education and privatize all public services are the link, or connection between prison inmates and their families.  These companies say that the states force them to provide security features that increase the cost of doing business. Either way you look at it, the inmate and their families are the victims.

Here’s what one mother had to say about Global Tel*Link:
“I opened an account for $25 two months ago in order for my child to call me on my cell from prison. He can't ever get through because it is a "blocked" number, which is why I paid for a prepaid account. I called customer service, who all have very heavy accents (for their convenience I think) and constantly interrupt while you are explaining the problem. The first time I called I was told to be sure my child does not call collect. Still, he can't get through. I called again and I am told that I must supply GTL with a recent copy of my utility bill and a recent copy of my phone bill. This feels like a scam to me. Really, this company needs to be stopped. They will not return any money and I imagine the company is run out of someone's home. I think everyone who has a bad experience with this company should write their state attorney general and complain.”

John Castle, welfare recipient and general waster
Castle Harlan, the group of coupon clippers that owns Securus is headed by John Castle, a 76 year old billionaire.  Castle was sued by a waiter earlier this year for breaking his finger. He was upset that the waiter brought the check to the table apparently and twisted the waiter’s finger referring to him as a “schmuck”. It seems with super rich characters, because the club was a private club, members like Castle are often billed monthly for their dining. So to hand him a check at the table like us mortals experience all the time was “vulgar”. It’s amazing how they can get rich of the backs of others and be offended by such normal things.  Vulgarity to the ruling class is different than our definition of it.

Forbes reported at the time that, “The incident hasn’t shocked many who know Castle, a personal friend and frequent Palm Beach host of U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch. Leverage buyout king Castle is known on The Island as an abrasive character who often snaps at the help, which in his case includes half a dozen servants, chauffeurs and yacht captain.”

We have commented on this blog many times about the horrific situation with regards to incarceration in the US.  Most inmates are from poor working class families, more than 50% people of color.  Many would not be in prison were society to offer different avenues and more opportunities for young workers as well as a guaranteed job and training when they completed their sentence; without a job and security, they find the milieu that will provide it, even if temporarily.  One inmate explains:

“Over the years, I have lost most of my contact with my family and friends due to the increased cost of a telephone call from the prison setting. I come from a very poor family.”

Castle, like another coupon clipper, Mitt Romney, raids companies to extract value.  His business activity acumen provides him with a nice lifestyle.  A friend of Orrin Hatch, he purchased the Kennedy family's Palm Beach, Fla., compound in in 1995 and if famous for holding lavish parties and other events there.

Prions are not correctional centers at all; they are simply a place for warehousing human beings, especially the youth.  Prisons construction and management is also a lucrative business and can revitalize rural communities where employment is scarce.  They are generally constructed in rural areas that make it difficult for families to visit and protests to be held.

The prison industrial complex in the United States is a disgrace.  No other country has as many people in prison as the US.  Youth, the mentally impaired, the poor are executed or spend their entire lives behind bars here; it is a barbaric, brutal and racist system. And social wasters like the coupon clippers in this example accumulate great wealth through the suffering of others.  We need to liberate their ill-gotten gains.  We can guarantee them a society in which they can do productive labor and feel secure with a job, housing and a future----something they deny to us.

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