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Originally published February 4, 2013 at 4:50 PM | Page modified February 5, 2013 at 9:28 AM

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Editorial: Limit predatory rates for prison phone calls

Allowing telephone companies to charge exorbitant rates for prisoners’ calls to their families is wrongheaded public policy.

Seattle Times Editorial

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A SOCIETY seeking lower crime rates and fewer people behind bars would want inmates to have access to low-cost telephone calls to loved ones back home.

We are not such a society.

Instead, we allow prisons to grant telephone companies lucrative monopolies on collect calls placed by inmates. Prison systems usually get a skim off exorbitant rates, which are essentially a tax on prisoners’ families.

Washington charges $3.50 for a 20-minute in-state collect call and $13.50 for a 20-minute out-of-state call. Other states are pricier, but those rates are competitive only in a monopoly.

That is simply bad public policy. Research shows inmates who keep close ties to family have lower recidivism rates once they return home. Recidivism carries high costs — for victims, inmates’ children and taxpayers. A wise society should not price familial bonds out of reach.

Last week, AT&T paid an eye-popping $45 million to settle a 12-year-old class-action suit that accused the telecom of failing to disclose exorbitant rates.

The lawsuit, brought by friends and family of prison activist and writer Paul Wright, refunds charges for any collect call made from a Washington state prison between 1996 and 2000. The settlement money can make whole at least 70,000 families. Several people racked up phone bills of $20,000.

In December, the Federal Communications Commission, after a decade of inaction, announced it would take comments on new rules to cap and regulate interstate collect calls from prison. It should move quickly to limit predatory calling rates.

The state Legislature and state Department of Corrections should also revisit telephone contracts and cut rates, if possible.

Prison calls can be more expensive because they require monitoring. Washington’s DOC uses money from monopolistic contracts to fund recreational programs for inmates.

Fine, but taxing inmates families to do so is unfair, and unwise.

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