reducing recidivism depends on inmate communications

In many U.S. prisons and jails, inmates communicate with family and friends in the free world via written correspondence, in-person visits, and telephone calls.  Written correspondence and in-person visits are expensive to monitor systematically.  They can be means of introducing physical contraband into prisons and jails.  Making electronic messaging and video conferencing available to inmates on reasonable terms can increase inmates’ communication with family and friends, increase public safety, and reduce the likelihood of recidivism.  Modernizing inmate communications benefits everyone.

The potential net public benefit of modernizing inmate communications appears to be large.  For example, prisons in Oregon currently hold about 15,000 persons.  The direct cost of incarcerating a person in Oregon prisons is $85 per day.  Prisoners’ median length of stay in Oregon prisons, excluding prisoners with a life or death sentence, is 3.4 years.  The total direct cost to the state of the median incarceration spell is $105,000.  About 27% of prisoners finish their sentences of imprisonment, fail to re-integrate into law-abiding society, and are sent back to prison.  That’s a costly failure for the prisoner, for the new crime victim, and for the public.  The Oregon Department of Corrections estimates that reducing recidivism by merely 1% avoids $4.3 million in annual victim and taxpayer costs.[1]

Increasing prisoner communication with friends and family can reduce recidivism.  Imagine trying to re-integrate yourself into law-abiding society after spending a few years in prison.  You have lost your job, your place to live, and probably many of your possessions and much of your money.  Relationships with family and friends are crucial for prisoner reintegration into law-abiding society.  Maintaining relationships with law-abiding persons outside prison depends on maintaining communication with them.

In Oregon prisons, inmates can electronically receive photos, exchange text messages, and engage in video visitation with screened family and friends.  The Oregon Department of Corrections offers these services to inmates in conjunction with inmate service provider Telmate.[2]  At the U.S. Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC’s) workshop on reforming inmate calling services’ rates, Telmate Chief Executive Officer Richard Torgersrud stated:

Phones are just one component of what’s going on.  The industry is changing.  The young generation doesn’t even make phone calls.  They don’t know how to call anybody.  They don’t talk on the phone.  They text, they put status updates, they exchange photos.  Families today expect to be able to video visit and see each other at home.  … In the last couple of months alone, we have provided over a quarter million video visits remotely, half a million photos shared and messages. [3]

Data filed publicly in the FCC’s docket on inmate calling rates suggests that Oregon prisoners receive 5.2 photos, send or receive 18 electronic messages, and engaged in 1 video call per month.[4]  That electronic message rate is roughly consistent with federal prisoners’ monthly electronic messaging rate.   Photos, which prisoners can receive but not send, are quite popular.  Few prisons or jails offer that communication service for prisoners.  Video visitation is developing rapidly, but many inmates and their loved ones currently lack that communication option.

Broad perspectives are crucial for the development of inmate communications.  Federal communications law directs the FCC to ensure that communications services have reasonable charges (prices).[5]  Unreasonably high inmate communication prices discourage the use of communication services and hence limit potential reductions in recidivism through better communication.  But the challenge is not just a matter of prices.  Communication service prices do not vary across Oregon prisons, but communication service usage per inmate varies considerably.[6]  Detailed, technical operational procedures significantly effect inmates’ use of communication services.  Prison and jail officials need to recognize the broad public interest in promoting modern, systematically monitored and supervised inmate communications offered at reasonable prices.

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Data: Oregon DOC inmate communication services workbook (Excel version)

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[1] Data from presentation, Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC), Implementing Enhanced Operating Technologies (Dec. 11, 2013), filed by Telmate on 1/13/2014 in FCC WCB Docket 12-375.  Recidivism rates of roughly a third within three years are common across the U.S.

[2] Here’s information on the Oregon Department of Corrections inmate communications services.

[3] FCC Workshop on Reforming Inmate Calling Services Rates, July 10, 2013, from transcript, pp. 258-9.

[4] See Oregon inmate communications services workbook, summary sheet.

[5] U.S. Communications Act of 1934, as amended, Title I, Sec. 1 (47 U.S.C. 151).

[6] On a per inmate basis, photos received vary from 3.7 to 6.1, electronic messages from 8.5 to 25.4, and video calls from 0.0 to 2.3.  Total communications vary from 13.0 to 32.3.  The variations don’t obviously correlate with security level or inmate sex.  See Oregon inmate communications services workbook, summary sheet.

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