Bianca Tylek
1,045,373 views • 5:57


Not too long ago, a mother told me, “I can talk to my son in the dark.” [Operator voice: The prepaid collect call from an inmate at —] Her son was in prison and paying for phone calls often meant she couldn't afford her light bill. See, families can pay as much as a dollar a minute to speak to a loved one in prison or jail. These egregious rates have created a 1.2-billion-dollar prison telecom industry and with visit costs forced one in three families with an incarcerated loved one into debt. Eighty-seven percent of those carrying this financial burden are women. And as a result of decades of racist policies and policing, they're disproportionately Black and brown.

Prison telecom corporations claim that these high rates are necessary to pay site commissions to prisons and jails and provide security and surveillance. While the government's hands are far from clean, these corporate claims are simply not supported by reality.

Consider this. In Connecticut, where families are charged as much as 32.5 cents per minute and the state takes a 68 percent commission, the telecom provider takes home 10 cents per minute. Now, in Illinois, where the state takes no commission, families pay the same corporation nine tenths of a cent per minute. In other words, even after the government takes its cut, the corporation makes 10 times more in Connecticut than it does in Illinois for providing the same service. And prisons in Illinois are no less secure than those in Connecticut.

These are simply corporate arguments used to justify predatory business practices and distract from the very simple truth. Corporations in the prison industry have a financial interest in seeing more people behind bars and for longer periods of time.

In reality, providing families and their incarcerated loved ones with regular communication is not just the right thing to do. It's also the most fiscally responsible and safe thing to do. If you think taxpayers shouldn't be on the hook for phone calls for people who have committed crimes, remember this. The most expensive rates are charged in jails where the majority of people are awaiting trial and not yet convicted. Prison wages range from nothing to a few cents an hour, so it's hard working, taxpaying families that are paying for calls. And maintaining strong community ties is one of the most important factors in a person's successful reentry upon release. It improves housing, employment and social outcomes, making it less likely that people need government support or end up back in prison. The bottom line is that prison telecom corporations, and the thousands of others in the prison industry, prioritize profit as they promote the caging of people to exploit them and their families.

See, prison telecom is just one sector in the 80-billion-dollar prison industry. When I say prison industry, I'm talking about food service corporations that serve rotten meat to people behind bars, health care providers that deny incarcerated people care, and architecture firms that design windowless six-by-nine-foot cells for solitary confinement, where people spend weeks, months and even years. We invest in these corporations through our retirement funds, public pensions, university endowments and private foundations, and we celebrate their executives on the boards of our favorite cultural institutions.

And in all fairness, it's not just the private sector. It's also government agencies that charge excessive fines and fees and abuse free or grossly underpaid prison labor to manufacture license plates, staff DMV call centers, fight wildfires and, yes, even pick cotton.

So this begs the question, how can we address our crisis of mass incarceration if an entire segment of our economy is fighting to put more people behind bars and for longer? We can't. But we can demand and create change. The key is running coordinated policy and corporate campaigns. That's the playbook I put to use when I founded Worth Rises, a nonprofit prison abolition organization dedicated to dismantling the prison industry.

Let's go back to prison telecom for a quick example. In 2018, we led a campaign in New York City that passed the first piece of legislation to make jail phone calls free, saving families with incarcerated loved ones, nearly 10 million dollars a year and increasing communication by roughly 40 percent overnight. In 2019, we helped local advocates in San Francisco introduce a similar policy and launched several statewide campaigns to do the same. That same year, we fought the consolidation of two major market players in front of the Federal Communications Commission and won. We blocked 150-million-dollar investment by a public pension with a private equity firm that owned a prison telecom corporation. And we removed one of the largest investors in the field from a major museum board. In just two years, we toxified the industry and threatened its business model, causing an investor sell-off.

But more importantly, that means millions of families connected and billions of dollars protected from the predatory hands of prison profiteers. It means fewer dollars invested in and promoting human caging and control. And it means at least one mother won't have to sit in the dark to talk to her son again. [Operator: You may start the conversation now.]

Thank you.