Predatory Fees Prey on the Incarcerated and Their Families

In today’s digital era, where a call or message to a loved one is just a tap away, it’s a harsh reality that for families of the incarcerated, staying connected is a luxury they often can’t afford. Behind the cold walls of correctional facilities, a predatory system thrives, turning basic communication into a financial nightmare. This isn’t just about inflated phone bills; it’s about an insidious practice that targets some of our most vulnerable communities, extracting profits from their need to maintain familial bonds. As we unpack this pressing issue, it’s vital to remember that at its core, this is a human story – one of families torn apart not just by bars but by unjust costs.

The Harsh Reality of Communication Costs

Imagine this: a 15-minute phone call costing as much as a family dinner at a decent restaurant. For many of us, it’s unthinkable. Yet, that’s the everyday reality for families of incarcerated individuals. These calls, often the only lifeline to loved ones behind bars, come with a hefty price tag, courtesy of monopolistic contracts between correctional facilities and telecommunication companies.

The numbers are staggering. In some facilities, a single call can cost upwards of $15. That’s not just a dent in the wallet; it’s a devastating blow for low-income families. These exorbitant rates are not due to the high cost of providing the service, but rather, they are a result of a system designed to profit from the desperation and isolation of inmates and their families.

This issue goes beyond just the financial strain. It’s a blatant disregard for the basic human need for connection. Studies have shown that maintaining family ties during incarceration is crucial for mental health and successful reintegration into society. Yet, the current system seems to be built on the premise of severing these ties, one costly call at a time.

In the following sections, we’ll explore how this predatory pricing doesn’t stop at phone calls. It extends to other aspects of prison life, creating a systematic burden on those who are already struggling. It’s a cycle of exploitation that needs to be broken, and it starts with shedding light on these hidden practices.

Financial Exploitation Beyond Communication

The predatory fees in correctional facilities extend far beyond the cost of a phone call. This systemic exploitation takes various forms, each more disheartening than the last. Let’s peel back the layers of this deep-rooted issue.

Firstly, consider the commissary – a source of basic necessities for inmates, from toiletries to snacks. The prices here are often exorbitantly high, capitalizing on the captive market. A simple item like toothpaste or soap can cost several times more than its price outside prison walls. It’s not just about comfort; it’s about dignity. When families send money for these essentials, they’re often met with a rude awakening – a significant portion of their funds are swallowed by inflated prices, leaving little for the actual needs of their loved ones.

Then there’s the electronic messaging service – a modern-day equivalent to letters, but at a steep price. Sending a digital message, something we do for free daily, can cost an inmate’s family a dollar or more per message. This digital communication is not only costly but often subjected to strict monitoring and limitations, further impeding the free flow of communication between inmates and their families.

Let’s not forget the transfer fees. When families deposit money into inmates’ accounts, they’re often hit with hefty transfer fees. These fees, sometimes as high as 30% of the transferred amount, are another way the system drains resources from already financially strained families.

This multifaceted exploitation creates a financial burden that extends beyond the walls of the correctional facility, affecting the inmates’ families and communities. It’s a system that profits from those who can least afford it, turning basic human needs into a luxury only some can afford. As we get deeper into this issue, it becomes increasingly clear that this is not just a matter of economics but a profound moral failing in our justice system.

The Emotional Toll

The financial exploitation in correctional facilities isn’t just a matter of dollars and cents; it carries a profound emotional weight that ripples through families and communities. Imagine a child unable to hear their parent’s voice because a phone call is prohibitively expensive. Picture the strain on a relationship when words of comfort and love are restricted by the cost of an email. This isn’t mere inconvenience; it’s a systematic erosion of human connections.

The emotional impact of these predatory practices is immense. For many families, staying connected with incarcerated loved ones is a lifeline, essential for mental well-being and maintaining a sense of normalcy. When this connection is severed by financial barriers, the psychological effects are devastating. Children grow up missing the voice of a parent, partners feel the strain of prolonged separation, and inmates suffer from the isolation, exacerbating feelings of depression and hopelessness.

Furthermore, the stress of managing these financial burdens adds another layer of emotional turmoil. Families often face tough decisions between staying in touch with their incarcerated loved ones and meeting their basic needs. This creates a sense of guilt and helplessness, as they’re forced to weigh their limited resources against the invaluable connection with a family member.

Personal narratives bring this issue into sharp relief. Take Maria, for example, a single mother working two jobs to support her family. Her husband’s incarceration has not only put a strain on their finances but also on their emotional bonds. The cost of calls means her children can only speak to their father once a month, turning what should be regular, nurturing conversations into rare, hurried exchanges fraught with the pressure of the ticking clock.

This emotional toll extends to the incarcerated individuals as well. Maintaining family ties is a key factor in successful reintegration into society post-release. When these ties are weakened by financial barriers, it hampers the rehabilitation process, increasing the likelihood of recidivism. It’s a vicious cycle where the emotional and financial costs intertwine, perpetuating a system that fails not just the individuals but the society at large.

As we dig deeper into this issue, it’s crucial to remember that at its heart are real people, grappling with a system that often seems indifferent to their struggles. It’s a narrative that needs to be told, and a cycle that demands to be broken.

A Systemic Issue: Profit over People

At the heart of this issue lies a systemic problem where financial gain is prioritized over human connection and rehabilitation. This isn’t a series of isolated incidents but a widespread practice that reflects deeper, structural flaws in our justice system.

Private companies, in collusion with correctional facilities, have created a business model that capitalizes on the vulnerability of inmates and their families. The logic is simple yet cruel: where demand is guaranteed and supply is controlled, prices can be set at a premium with little regard for affordability or fairness. This system is not a byproduct of running correctional facilities; it is a deliberate strategy to generate revenue.

The state’s role in this cannot be ignored. By allowing, and sometimes even participating in these practices, the government tacitly endorses this exploitation. While some may argue that these fees help fund the prison system, this argument falls flat when weighed against the moral cost. It’s a system that effectively punishes families for trying to maintain a basic human connection, deepening the societal divide between those inside and outside the prison walls.

This issue raises fundamental questions about the purpose of our penal system. Is it purely punitive, or does it also have a responsibility towards rehabilitation and societal reintegration? By prioritizing profit over people, the current system undermines any efforts toward rehabilitation, laying the groundwork for a cycle of recidivism and continued incarceration.

It’s crucial to recognize this not as a series of individual choices, but as a systemic flaw that requires systemic solutions. Change must come through policy reform and public awareness, challenging the status quo that allows such practices to thrive. As a society, we must question and confront the morality of a system that monetizes misfortune and perpetuates inequality.

5. The Ripple Effect on Communities:

The predatory practices in correctional facilities have a ripple effect that extends far beyond the immediate families of the incarcerated. They impact entire communities, contributing to a cycle of economic hardship and social instability.

Communities with high incarceration rates are often already facing economic challenges. When families are burdened with exorbitant communication fees, the strain is not just on individual households but on the community’s economy as a whole. Money that could be circulated locally, supporting businesses and fostering community growth, is instead funneled into the coffers of private companies. This diversion of resources weakens already vulnerable communities, exacerbating poverty and limiting opportunities for development.

These practices have a detrimental effect on social cohesion. The barriers to communication hinder the ability of incarcerated individuals to maintain relationships and stay connected to their communities. This disconnection can lead to a sense of alienation, making it harder for them to reintegrate into society upon release. The lack of strong community ties is a known factor in recidivism, creating a cycle where individuals are more likely to return to prison, further draining community resources and deepening social divides.

The impact on children and families is particularly profound. Children with incarcerated parents face unique challenges, including emotional stress, social stigma, and economic instability. The additional financial burden of maintaining contact with their incarcerated parent can have long-lasting effects on their well-being and development. By limiting these children’s access to their parents, the system not only impacts the current generation but also casts a shadow on the future.

Breaking this cycle requires a concerted effort to reform these predatory practices. It calls for policies that prioritize the welfare of communities and the rehabilitation of incarcerated individuals. By addressing these issues, we can begin to heal the wounds inflicted by this system and work towards a more equitable and just society.

The cost of predatory fees in correctional facilities is far more than financial; it’s a cost borne by families, communities, and society as a whole. It’s a challenge that demands our attention and action, not just for the sake of those directly affected, but for the health and vitality of our communities and our collective future.

As we reflect on the issues raised in this article, it becomes evident that the predatory fees in correctional facilities are more than just a financial injustice; they are a profound societal concern. They erode the basic human need for connection, disproportionately affecting marginalized communities and perpetuating a cycle of economic hardship and social dislocation. This is not merely an issue of correctional policy but a broader reflection of our values as a society.

The narrative of families torn apart by unjust costs and communities weakened by systemic exploitation challenges us to consider the kind of society we aspire to be. Are we content to stand by as profit is prioritized over people, or are we committed to fostering a system that upholds dignity, fairness, and rehabilitation? It’s a call to action for policymakers, community leaders, and each one of us as citizens to advocate for change.

By raising our voices against these practices, supporting organizations fighting for reform, and voting for policies that promote fairness and rehabilitation, we can make a difference. The change may be gradual, but its impact will be lasting, creating a justice system that truly serves the needs of all its members and a society that values human connection over profit.

How To Help

Here’s a list of online resources for individuals who want to take action against the predatory policies in correctional facilities:

Prison Policy Initiative (PPI)

  • Website:
  • Focus: PPI produces cutting-edge research to expose the broader harm of mass criminalization and advocates for a more just society. They also have specific campaigns against the high cost of phone calls in prisons.

The Sentencing Project

  • Website:
  • Focus: Works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM)

  • Website:
  • Focus: FAMM is a nonprofit organization fighting for sentencing and prison reforms that empower families and advocate for individualized, just, and humane sentences.

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

  • Website:
  • Focus: The ACLU works in courts, legislatures, and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States, including issues related to incarceration.

The Marshall Project

  • Website:
  • Focus: A nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system.

Equal Justice Initiative (EJI)

  • Website:
  • Focus: EJI is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the U.S., challenging racial and economic injustice, and protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.

The Vera Institute of Justice

  • Website:
  • Focus: Works to urgently build and improve justice systems that ensure fairness, promote safety, and strengthen communities.

The Justice Policy Institute (JPI)

  • Website:
  • Focus: JPI is dedicated to reducing the use of incarceration and the justice system by promoting fair and effective policies.

These resources offer a wealth of information and tools for advocacy, including research, legal assistance, lobbying for policy changes, and community support networks. They are excellent starting points for individuals and groups interested in combating predatory policies and advocating for justice reform.


  • Tom Serrano

    Thomas "Tom" Serrano, is a proud Cuban-American dad from Miami, Florida. He's renowned for his expertise in technology and its intersection with business. Having graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science from the East Florida, Tom has an ingrained understanding of the digital landscape and business.Initially starting his career as a software engineer, Tom soon discovered his affinity for the nexus between technology and business. This led him to transition into a Product Manager role at a major Silicon Valley tech firm, where he led projects focused on leveraging technology to optimize business operations.After more than a decade in the tech industry, Tom pivoted towards writing to share his knowledge on a broader scale, specifically writing about technology's impact on business and finance. Being a first-generation immigrant, Tom is familiar with the unique financial challenges encountered by immigrant families, which, in conjunction with his technical expertise, allows him to produce content that is both technically rigorous and culturally attuned.

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