When I was growing up, a phone call from my father was a very big deal, and a surprise every time. Because our household didn't always have enough to make ends meet, there was never enough to spare the cost of calling him collect. He made all the calls to us. It was rare for him to get the opportunity, and have the resources at any given time, but when he found himself in that fortunate position, he called. As a small child, I didn’t understand why his calls were so infrequent. But too soon, I, like most kids who grew up the same way, had to learn about the power of money. I had some ideas about what money could bring into your life, but was just beginning to learn what money, or the lack thereof, can keep away from you.
In October of last year I was a guest on The Atlantic’s podcast, The Experiment, with my friend, and guest host, Dr. Clint Smith. Clint is the author of one of the books I encouraged my readers to dive into just as we were getting started in this space, How the Word is Passed. He invited me onto the podcast to talk about the cost of prison calls. Not just the monetary significance, but what it does to a family, to have communication limited by what they can afford. This isn’t uncommon in communities that recognize lack in their lives. Still, I wanted to talk about it. I wanted to talk about how it felt to know whether or not I spoke to my father for months depended on how well things went at an institutional job where he would be lucky to make fifteen cents an hour. That’s not a typo. For prison workers in Indiana, that’s simply the standard rate. Fifteen cents per hour. The standard rate for a phone call is twenty-four cents per minute.
I write and talk about injustices like these from my own perspective, and that may make the circumstances seem singular, but they aren’t. The specifics exist within the singular context of my life, but the circumstances themselves are all too common, and in some places, worse. The words below are how I ended my conversation with Dr. Smith. The words are mine, but make no mistake they do not belong only to me. For some of us, it’s the too expensive calls that are even expensive when you miss them, for others it’s the blatant scams and fees associated with various apps and internet portals, and there are still a million other stories ready to be told. I hope we tell them all. Somebody has to tell those stories, right? How else will anybody ever know what it was like?
FORD: We believe that punishing the family through the incarcerated loved one is part of the punishment for the incarcerated loved one. And we, as a society, pretend that that is a humane consequence of incarceration.
So what we do to children of the incarcerated in general is take away one potential earner, potential protector, potential source of love and comfort from the home. We take away half of that. And then we also leave these children with the shame of their connection to that person.
I suffered through no choice of my own. These were not my consequences for my actions. And yet, I suffered. But I think if I’d been able to have those regular calls with my dad, there would have been a lot less suffering for me.
And, right now, there are a lot of people who feel like my suffering as a child is a reasonable cost. And I disagree. And I—I don’t think any child deserves to suffer the loss of communication with an incarcerated parent. I don’t think any child deserves to suffer in that way.
And, um, honestly, anybody who believes differently can, uh—can meet me outside. [Both laugh.] Let’s—let’s have a chat. It makes me that angry and that upset. No child deserves it.