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Open letter urges Victorian government to cover the "exorbitant" cost of prisoner phone calls

Dechlan Brennan -

A coalition of legal and community groups used Mother's Day to call for the Victorian government to fully fund the cost of phone calls for incarcerated people.

In an open letter addressed to the Treasurer, the Minister for Corrections, and the Minister for Children, the thirteen organisations said they were disappointed there was no funding in the recent state budget to subsidise calls for prisoners.

This is despite the Yoorrook Justice Commission recommending in their interim report last year that Aboriginal prisoners be able to "make telephone calls for free or at no greater cost than the general community".

"We reiterate our urgent concern, expressed during the Inquiry into Children Affected by Parental Incarceration, the Cultural Review of the Adult Custodial Corrections System, and in sustained and sector-wide advocacy efforts over recent years, at the exorbitant cost of these phone calls," the letter stated.

"These costs create an unacceptably high barrier to contact between people in prison and their families, including children, and damage people's prospects for successful reintegration into their community post-release."

The cost of the maximum allowed 12-minute phone call in a Victorian corrections facility is almost $7 - 57c per minute - while inmates earn between $3.55 and $9.60 per day for the work they do, which covers items in the canteen, other expenses, as well as phone calls.

All other finances must be provided by family or friends.

An inmate interviewed in the prison cultural review released last year said: "You get one $5 welfare call [when you arrive]".

"And I still don't understand why – like in today's society, when all the phone companies are on unlimited plans – our phone calls still cost $12 to make a mobile phone call. Like we earn – top dollar [maximum amount] is $8.95 a day. I don't understand. I don't get it," they said.

Inmates frequently complained they were unable to speak to family members as much as they wanted or needed.

This includes as estimated 7,000 children in Victoria with incarcerated parents who often are unable to talk to their children. This contravenes the idea of family connection for incarcerated people helping to reduce recidivism.

The cultural review found the "combination of very low daily wages for employment within the custodial environment means that people in custody may not be able to remain in contact with family and community".

In the USA, four states now provide free phone calls for inmates. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found a third of families with incarcerated loved ones went into debt over the cost of prisoner communications and visits.

The open letter says: "Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people face unique and compounded experiences of trauma while incarcerated. Remaining connected to one's culture, family, and community can minimise that trauma, thereby reducing the risk of recidivism".

The Victorian government has a contract with Comsec TR for telecommunications in prisons across this state, which is slated to expire in 2025.

The letter observed the same company has a contract with Tasmanian correction, where "incarcerated people are charged 37 per cent less for phone calls to mobiles than they are in Victoria".

It ended by noting many of the signatories would be able to facilitate meetings with people who have lived experience in the difficulties of communication whilst in prison.

"We strongly encourage the government to listen to the voices of people with lived experience of the justice system explaining how the prohibitive cost of phone calls impacted their families, affected their wellbeing in prison, and compromised their journey to desistance and reintegration post-release," the letter said.

"We also make ourselves available for ongoing consultation on how the government can best promote strong, pro-social connections between people in prison and their families on the outside."

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