THE FEDERAL Bureau of Prisons made phone calls and some video visits free for inmates in early April, as the covid-19 pandemic forced a suspension of visits. The change was overdue, and Congress should make the policy permanent.

Yet the federal government operates only one relatively small piece of the nation’s jail and prison system. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, which tracks jail and prison phone call systems, not many cities, counties or states have followed the federal lead. That means thousands of prisoners and their families will be hard hit simply for staying in touch.

Calling from a state prison can be shockingly expensive, and from a local jail even more so. The Prison Policy Initiative found in 2018 that the average 15-minute phone call from jail cost $5.74, more than three times the cost from state prison. In some states, the average cost goes into the double digits. Beyond per-minute rates, company fees for “services,” such as topping up phone accounts or listening to voice mails, jack up prices, too. State and local authorities often take a slice, as well.

The cost for jail inmates is particularly appalling because most are just awaiting trial and have not been convicted of anything. Jails are often filled with people who are locked up for failure to make bail or to pay high court fines and fees, meaning exorbitant expenses for basic services are being demanded of those least able to pay them. Forcing families to pay unreasonably high costs to stay in touch is a form of unofficial and unwarranted punishment that should not be accepted as a normal consequence of incarceration. The practice is also counterproductive, as well as unjust, because prisoners who maintain ties with family while incarcerated tend to reoffend at lower rates.

Now that covid-19 has eliminated in-person visitation in many places, jails and prisons should end extreme pricing. And those that have announced temporary policies easing or, ideally, eliminating costs should make them permanent.

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