Last week, the New York Times published an article on sky-high phone rates and money transfer fees in prison. The article focuses on Clallam Bay Corrections Center, a state prison in rural Washington. There, phone calls start at $3.15, outgoing emails at 33 cents and all money transfers at $4.95. Two private companies, Global Tel-Link and JPay, are contracted to provide all phone, Internet and money transfers to the prisoners there.

Providing these services to prisons has been incredibly lucrative. Both companies are often able to operate beyond the reach of regulations that protect ordinary consumers; prisoners, friends and families have little choice but to shoulder the high costs and hidden fees.

Global Tel-Link and JPay are not the only ones making money off our system of punishment. As we have blogged about before, Corrections Corporations of America has reaped incredible profits off the building and management of private prisons, medical providers such as Corizon and Correct Care Solutions continue to win lucrative contracts to provide sub-standard health services in prisons across the country, and we have recently seen the proliferation of for-profit probation companies that charge people “supervision fees” for their court-ordered services.

States, counties, and cities, too, are finding new ways to collect revenue from prisoners - in their case to plug the revenue gaps that come with the high cost of keeping so many people locked up. This includes levying enormous court fines and fees on criminal defendants for everything from room and board while incarcerated, to indigent legal service fees, to additional financial penalties for certain criminal convictions. 

The United States has the largest criminal justice system in the world. We lock more people away than any other developed nation, separating people from their families and loved ones and often devastating entire communities. The good news is there is a growing awareness that what we are doing is both unsustainable and deeply harmful. But while momentum for reform begins to grow, we are now faced with the economic challenge that goes with our system of punishment. Unfortunately, some corporations and state agencies have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, regardless of the human cost.