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COVID Precautions Complicate Communication with Inmates at Montana Prisons

A black and white image of a prison cell block hallway, with bars, with a pay phone in the forefront.
Jason Farrar (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, Montana’s prisons have stopped allowing in person visits to inmates since March. As cases continue to stack up across the state and inside correctional facilities, difficulties maintaining communication between inmates and their loved ones have also increased. Experts say isolation among inmates can negatively impact inmates' mental health and make it harder for them to adjust once out of prison.

Before the pandemic, Laurie Little Dog drove with her son every weekend from Bozeman to Deer Lodge to visit her husband at Montana State Prison. They’d arrive hours before visitors were allowed inside the facility to be first in line, waiting in their car until 2:30. For five hours on Saturdays and Sundays the family would play board games, take walks or just sit and soak in the sight of each other.

Little Dog made the trip so often the motel they stayed at started setting aside a room for her and her son.

Then the prison ended in person visits. Little Dog’s relationship shifted from face to face, to waiting for the phone to ring.

"And when I do talk to him it's just a real quick maybe four minute five minute phone call because other people are waiting to use the phone. It’s very much just rapid fire information exchange. Which is difficult when you’re trying to have a sense of family and a marriage," Little Dog said.

Little Dog is an activist advocating for incarcerated people. She says with visits suspended, there’s higher demand and less availability for phone time. She says that was a particular hardship when her husband tested positive for COVID-19. She didn’t hear from him for six days.

"He wasn’t able to physically climb off the shared bunk bed down to go use the phone," Little Dog said.

Little Dog’s family is one of many whose connection to the outside world moved online or over the phone because of the pandemic. At Montana’s prisons, lockdown protocols mean phone calls are unscheduled and last only a few minutes.

Experts say a lack of connection with friends and family can negatively impact an inmate's mental health, making the transition out of incarceration more difficult and leading to higher rates of recidivism.

Spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, Carolynn Bright says the DOC recognizes the importance of communication between inmates and their loved ones.

"Keeping families and friends in touch with inmates is a priority of the department. And we do absolutely everything in our power to make sure that connection continues because that helps to ensure inmates success when they actually return to the community," Bright said.

The state contracts CenturyLink for inmate phone systems and payments are handled by their billing agent, ICSolutions. As a response to the pandemic, CenturyLink has allowed one free phone call and one free video call per week since April.

Little Dog hasn’t been able to use the free video chat service due to technology problems. She says she sees the gesture as “fake generosity.”

After the weekly free call, Montana State Prison charges Little Dog 15 cents a minute for phone calls with her husband. The facility started offering email in August. Email credits cost $10 per 30 emails or $25 per 80 emails, which Little Dog says is more convenient than snail mail but slightly more expensive.

According to the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, in 2019 families like Little Dog’s paid a total of $276,000 for phone calls in Montana. The campaign says the state ranks 33rd in the nation for the affordability of a 15 minute phone call.

The state’s inmate phone contract does not cover five facilities in the state including Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby. According to spokesperson Ryan Gustin, Crossroads does not offer email service. He says in state calls are charged at 10 cents a minute and inmates are provided with one free call per month.

Gustin says facility staff have seen an increase in phone calls and mail since the suspension of in person visitation early in the pandemic.

Bright says while overall usage across state prison systems has increased, CenturyLink's revenue from inmate communication has actually declined over the past several months.

According to Bright the flat rate of $23,000 a month the DOC receives from calls goes to the “inmate welfare fund” which pays for activities and programs such as satellite TV service and recreational equipment.

"In light of this season at Montana State Prison this month, the funds were used to pay for supplies to allow incarcerated fathers to record themselves reading story books that were then sent to their children as gifts," Bright said.

Wanda Bertram, spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative, a non partisan organization that advocates for incarcerated people, says even if funds from communication go back to inmate services, "In my view that’s still wrong.

"Because if you’re making revenue that is generated by people who have loved ones in prison, that is revenue that should be coming from taxpayers. We don’t really like to think about it this way, but prisons and jails as we think of them are a public service, right? They’re just like libraries, they are just like post offices, they are meant to be funded by the taxpayers," Bertram said.

The Prison Policy Initiative is working on a study about the increase in communication costs for inmates during the pandemic.

Bertram says a lack of connection to the outside world worsens mental health outcomes for inmates.

"When folks aren’t able to connect with their loved ones, ideally in person, it can really change your perspective and it can really warp your view of what is going on. And it can make you do things that you normally wouldn’t do, including act out or be aggressive toward people around you," Bertram said.

Bertram says the pandemic has given people a glimpse into the isolation inmates experience.

"If you want to imagine what that’s like for somebody in prison who can’t even see their loved ones through a pane of glass anymore, just imagine the feelings that you’re having right now and crank them up to ten or 11," Bertram said.

For Little Dog, pandemic precautions continue to put a strain on her family.

"The excitement and the adrenaline that when the phone rings that it’s your loved one that you’ve been waiting you know because sometimes it’s days before you hear from them. Trying to remember everything that you wanted to say that's been on your heart when you’re lying in bed at night trying to remember all these key things at one time. And then the next thing you know they’ve got to hang up the phone because the next guy needs it," Little Dog said.