The University of St. Thomas

Incarceration & Children: How a Little Phone Call Can Make a Big Difference

Published on: Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

By Sarah Orange, ’14, for Voices for Racial Justice

Children across the Nation are often the invisible victims of mass incarceration. In June 2013, Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organization behind the popular children’s TV show Sesame Street, recognized this challenge when it launched a new program called “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration.” This program seeks to reach the 2.7 million children in the U.S. with an incarcerated parent through videos, crafts, music, and more. In one of the Sesame Street videos about incarceration, Alex (if you haven’t watched the show in a while that’s the orange puppet with blue hair) talks about how his father is incarcerated and the difficulties that he and other children like him face, including not always being able to talk to their parent. This program recognizes the importance of maintaining communication between children and their incarcerated parent. Maintaining routine communication is essential for helping children to understand and successfully cope with this difficult situation. A little phone call can make a big difference in the lives of children with an incarcerated parent.

Did you know: of the 2.7 million children with an incarcerated parent, 15,000 of them live right here in Minnesota? However, Minnesotan children are often denied the ability to maintain close contact with their incarcerated parent. First, because prisoners are incarcerated an average of 100 miles away from their families making in person visits difficult. Second, because it costs over $17 to make a 15-minute collect phone call out of a Minnesota prison. It is cheaper to call Singapore. These phone calls are so expensive because prison phone providers attract government contracts by offering the state a kickback – a percentage of the prison phone provider’s profits. In Minnesota, the prison system receives 49% of the profit that the phone provider makes from prison phone calls. However, community members and local civil rights organizations are taking action to stop this injustice. The Federal Communications Commission recently adopted policy changes regarding interstate prison phone calls which will lower phone rates across state lines and in federal prisons, however, these reforms do not affect intrastate (local) calls in Minnesota. Much more work is needed to address this issue within Minnesota in order to support children and families. For the children impacted, this cost barrier to communication can have devastating effects, resulting in emotional stress and behavioral challenges.

The impact of limited contact between children and parents has a far-reaching impact on Minnesota’s children. Studies have demonstrated that “lack of regular contact with incarcerated parents has been linked to truancy, homelessness, depression, aggression, and poor classroom performance in children.” (Federal Communications Commission, Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, FCC 13-113 (Sept. 26, 2013)). Furthermore, studies indicate that maintaining contact with an incarcerated parent is one of the most effective ways to improve a child’s emotional response and reduce behavioral problems. But in Minnesota the high cost of making a phone call from prison prevents this critical communication between the parent and child.

This problem most significantly affects children from communities of color. African American children are nine times more likely to have an incarcerated parent than White children. But the problem does not stop there. Forty-four percent of African American households in Minnesota live below the poverty line. For these families the cost of communicating with a loved one in prison can mean having to forgo basic necessities and places on strain on family budgets. The high cost of prison phone calls can be a significant barrier preventing African American children from maintaining communication with an incarcerated parent. Hence, the impact of the high cost of prison phone calls is far-reaching. However, a solution to this challenge is within our reach.

We can make a big difference in a child’s life today by raising awareness related to prison phone justice and educating others about this important issue. By reducing the cost of a prison phone call, we can ensure that families can remain connected. This is essential for promoting strong families and safe communities in the state of Minnesota. Take action today by visiting the Prison Phone Justice Campaign website at www.phonejustice.org and signing up to help fight for prison phone justice in Minnesota.

Sarah Orange is a Certified Student Attorney with the Community Justice Project at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. The work of the Community Justice Project civil rights clinic focuses on training law students to serve as social engineers who create new inroads to justice and freedom.

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