Prisons and Jails Keep Making It Harder for Incarcerated People to Communicate With Loved Ones

For many, the holidays mean time spent with family. But for many incarcerated people, maintaining those ties is becoming harder than ever.
Nazish Dholakia Senior Writer
Dec 13, 2022

Lakisha Santana Sell and her husband, David Sell, exchange emails every day while he is incarcerated at Wende Correctional Facility in Alden, New York.

Each email they send costs 15 cents. Santana Sell said it’s worth it.

“I feel more at ease knowing he’s okay. And I’m sure it means the world to him, because he looks forward to those emails,” she said. “If he doesn’t receive an email, he becomes concerned. He’ll say, ‘I haven’t gotten an email, I wonder if something’s wrong with my email?’” she added, laughing.

People who are incarcerated and their family members speak often of the importance of maintaining these connections. Family contact is not only beneficial to their mental health—these relationships also play an important role in helping incarcerated people succeed while in prison and when they return home.

Research spanning decades has proven this. A 1972 study that followed people on parole in California found that people who had visitors while in prison were less likely to be reincarcerated than people who had none. And studies since—in Florida, Minnesota, and elsewhere—have confirmed that keeping in contact with loved ones—visitation, phone calls, and mail correspondence—while in prison is extremely beneficial in helping people succeed after prison.

Yet, corrections officials have always made it notoriously difficult for incarcerated people to maintain these family and community ties—and they continue to do so in ways that are brazenly cruel, harmful, and senseless.

Multiple recent changes—just over the past year—show how officials are making it harder for incarcerated people to keep in touch with family and friends.

Jails and prisons are making it more difficult and increasingly costly to send mail

In recent years, bans on physical mail behind bars have become increasingly prevalent. In just the last year, these policies have proliferated. New rules require senders to mail all letters, photos, and cards to a designated for-profit company’s “central processing facility,” which then produces either physical copies or digital scans that are sent to the intended recipient. Incarcerated people don’t get the originals. Instead, they get grainy, darkened, or blurry images and letters with missing pages—that is, if they ever receive their mail at all. Mail digitization entails additional fees that compound the financial burdens endured by families with incarcerated loved ones.

This year alone, Florida, New Mexico, Missouri, and Iowa have all adopted bans on incoming mail, following in the footsteps of states including Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. In November 2022, New York City announced plans to hire a vendor to digitize incoming mail and send scans to people incarcerated in city jails. This list is far from comprehensive, and other facilities have likely adopted similar policies without it being widely reported.

But case after case proves that mail bans do nothing to stem the flow of contraband, like drugs, from entering facilities, the oft-cited—yet unsubstantiated—reason. In fact, overdoses actually increased after Missouri barred physical mail, proving what’s been shown before. Staffnot letters, not food packages, not books—are a primary source of drugs in prisons.

Physical mail—which was typically the most affordable form of contact—has been a cherished mode of communication for people in prison. The “tangible connection” that comes with a handwritten note, a birthday card, or a family photo is priceless. Prisons have taken this away and have instead monetized inferior scans and photocopies, changes that benefit only companies like Securus and TextBehind, which have profited from prison contracts.

Facilities are further limiting—and in some cases, suspending—visitation

In-person visitation has often been made needlessly difficult, even inhumane, by limiting hours and installing glass screens that separate loved ones and prevent them from holding hands and hugging. During the COVID-19 pandemic, facilities suspended in-person visits altogether, meaning people like Anthony Perez did not get to see their loved ones for years.

“I haven’t seen my daughter since she was born and now she’s two,” Perez told the Appeal in March. When he did finally meet her, he couldn’t even give her a hug. “I didn’t want the first time I saw my daughter to be like that.”

Now, facilities across the country are again moving to further limit, and even entirely suspend, visitation—this time because of staffing shortages. Florida considered significant cuts to visitation at its state prisons, which it foolishly described as a way of “modernizing” prison visitation policies. Meanwhile, Montana suspended visitation completely. Facilities elsewhere have taken similar action.

In Nashville jails, in-person visitation hasn’t resumed since the pandemic began. Instead, the facilities have seemingly switched to video visitation, which is not an acceptable substitute.

“Video visitation should be one of multiple opportunities that exist within a DOC’s strategic plan to connect and engage family,” said Clinique Chapman, associate director of Vera and MILPA's Restoring Promise initiative, which works to improve prison culture and conditions nationwide.

“Video visits and phone calls are not a substitute for in-person connection. The power of hugs, touch, and holding your children are aspects of humanity that not only benefit the incarcerated person and their family members but also the culture and safety of the prison,” Chapman said.

One change worth celebrating: Connecticut and California became the first states to make phone calls from prison free

Fortunately, the decades-long fight against costly phone calls in prison is finally gaining ground. In July, Connecticut became the first state to make all phone calls for people in state prisons and youth detention facilities free. California has followed with its own law—in effect January 2023—making phone calls from its prisons free of charge. In the last few years, New York City and San Francisco have also made calls from their city jails free.

But elsewhere, incarcerated people and their loved ones still shoulder the costs of wildly expensive phone calls. In jails, the average cost of a 15-minute phone call is $5.74—and can be as much as $24.82. These costs drive families into debt, forcing them to choose between keeping in contact with their loved ones or paying for food, making rent, and meeting other needs. According to a 2015 report by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, 34 percent of families go into debt maintaining contact with loved ones on the inside through phone calls and visits.

Meanwhile, the prison phone industry—dominated by two companies, Securus and GTL—makes more than $1.4 billion annually.

A bill in front of Congress could offer relief to incarcerated people and families forced to pay these exorbitant costs. The Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act—named after a woman forced to choose between calling her then-incarcerated grandson or paying for her medication—would authorize the FCC to set “just and reasonable” rates for interstate and intrastate phone and video calls from prisons and jails. Congress should pass this bill, and states should follow the lead of Connecticut and California and alleviate the cost of phone calls from prison.

Enabling incarcerated people to stay connected to their loved ones makes our communities safer

Our criminal legal system too readily creates obstacles that make it difficult for incarcerated people to stay connected to their families and their communities—yet another way our system is unjust, inhumane, and senseless. Local, state, and federal officials should instead help facilitate these connections, because having a support system helps people succeed while in prison and on the outside. And that serves all of us.