In her testimony at her husband’s sentencing hearing Jan. 18, Tiffany Van Dyke said that among the hardships she and her two daughters had been experiencing was the cost of staying in touch with her husband while he was in jail.
“It’s very expensive,” she said. “Every week I must spend a minimum of $400 to $500 on phone calls for the three of us to speak with him.”
That’s a staggering amount. And no matter what you think of Jason Van Dyke, the former Chicago police officer convicted in October in the 2014 shooting death of Laquan McDonald, or of any other inmate, it is an unwise burden to place on offenders and their families.
For his safety, Van Dyke was incarcerated before sentencing in Rock Island County along the Mississippi River, where the phone charges at the county jail for domestic calls are among the highest in the state: $3.86 for the first minute, 51 cents for each additional minute.
A collect phone call from the Rock Island jail to Chicago lasting 20 minutes, which Tiffany Van Dyke said was a typical length for their conversations, costs $13.55. If you make four such calls a day, the bill approaches $400 a week.
Had Jason Van Dyke been held in Cook County, the charges would have been a flat 12.5 cents a minute, or about $70 a week for the same calling pattern, according to the rate-quote feature on the website of Securus Technologies, the private company that has the inmate-phone contract in about half of Illinois counties and at every state prison. That’s a less staggering amount.
Less staggering still is the rate Van Dyke is paying now that he’s serving time in (an undisclosed) state prison: 0.9 cents per minute, which adds up to a little more than $5 a week to make four 20-minute calls a day. Rates vary from site to site.
“We used to jump up and down and yell about price gouging,” said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, a Chicago-based prison watchdog group. “Many of these inmates and families are impoverished, and the profiteering at their expense was unconscionable.”
And counterproductive. As Vollen-Katz noted, study after study going back decades shows that prisoners who are in regular contact with friends and family have better outcomes after they are released — are more likely to lead stable lives and less likely to re-offend — than those who are cut off from an outside support network.
More than 95 percent of today’s inmates will be released someday, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice. Van Dyke himself, though not a likely recidivist, could be out in about three years. Keeping his family ties tight is in everyone’s interest.
Archival news stories tell of controversies, protests and lawsuits in Illinois back when prison rates were Rock Island-high, and, nationally, such groups as Prison Phone Justice and the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice are battling predatory state rates as high as $5.70 for a 15-minute call.
Illinois is now ranked No. 1 for prison call affordability, according to Prison Phone Justice. And Vollen-Katz said that has created a new set of problems. “Since the rates went down at the beginning of the year, more inmates are able to afford to make phone calls,” she said. “So the demand is higher, and the competition for phone time is bad for morale and can create behavioral problems.”
Illinois Department of Corrections spokeswoman Lindsey Hess said the agency “is in the process of installing additional phones at every facility” to meet increased demand. She said calls from prison are limited to 30 minutes, but inmates are allowed to make multiple calls every day.
The risk of such generous access, of course, is that inmates will use the opportunity to commit or help orchestrate new crimes — everything from bookmaking to scam solicitation to murder-for-hire — though all nonlawyer calls are recorded and can be used as evidence.
But authorities have determined that the benefits outweigh this risk. The science bears them out and many families will agree.