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At many U.S. jails, keeping in touch with loved ones is unaffordable

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Jails in almost all states charge people in their custody for phone calls up to a dollar a minute. That's left families struggling to stay in touch with their loved ones, especially in places where in-person visits never opened back up after COVID hit. Michigan Radio reporter Beenish Ahmed has this report from Detroit.

BEENISH AHMED, BYLINE: Felisha Moorlet has a special bond with her husband, Terrence. But it's been hard for them to keep up since Terrence was jailed in the summer of 2020. Wayne County Jail shut down in-person visits when COVID hit. The only way to connect is through a phone call, but that comes with a cost.

FELISHA MOORLET: The cost of being able to even pay for a call is ridiculously high.

AHMED: A 15-minute in-state call from the jail costs $4.20. That's added up for Felisha, who is on a fixed income.

MOORLET: I have to take care of the house. I have to take care of, you know, the kids and everything else. It's hard.

AHMED: People who talk to their families from lockup have better mental health and better plans for their release, says Johanna Folk. She's a psychiatry professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who tracked people for 10 years after a stay in a suburban jail.

JOHANNA FOLK: The literature consistently shows that having more contact with your family while you're incarcerated is better in terms of outcomes.

AHMED: Courts have been backed up due to COVID, and people are spending longer in jail waiting for their trials. That was the case with Terrence. He spent nearly two years in jail before he took a plea deal - 13 years in prison for multiple charges related to a nonfatal shooting. But Terrence didn't talk it through with Felisha because they couldn't afford the calls. She says the news made her sick to her stomach, but she doesn't blame him.

MOORLET: I can perfectly understand why he wanted it done with and over with. It hurts, but I can understand.

AHMED: Bianca Tylek is with Worth Rises, an organization that advocates for free communication for people in correctional facilities. Tylek says the problem begins with the contracts. Telecom companies charge more for calls so both they and the jails can make money.

BIANCA TYLEK: Which essentially are just corporate kickbacks or what feels like legalized bribery.

AHMED: Legalized because it's not illegal for jails or prisons to make money off of their contracts, and it's not unusual either. Only two states offer free calls to jails and prisons - Connecticut and California, which did away with its charges in September. In Wayne County, Telmate gives the jail a minimum guarantee of $1.75 million a year. That's about 1.5% of the jail's operating budget. Authorities in Wayne County declined to speak with us. The telecom company Telmate didn't respond to our questions about the cost of calls. Terrence Moorlet is now in a state prison. The cost of a 15-minute in-state call from there is less than half of what it was when he was in the Wayne County Jail. Felisha says that means they can talk a little more.

MOORLET: You know, I've been lucky to hear from him, like, once a week, if that.

AHMED: That's still not as often as she would like, but she says they're making do.

For NPR News, I'm Beenish Ahmed in Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Beenish Ahmed
Beenish Ahmed is one of Michigan Radio's Detroit-based reporters. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast. Additionally, Beenish spent two years in Islamabad, Pakistan, working with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, covering the country’s first democratic transition of power as well as Pakistan's education system.
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