Freelining with Mike Freeman: The high cost of a phone call, and underwear, too.

Will poor guys like this soon have to dish out more for ... underwear? Polk County may start a trend in local jails: no free undies. (Photo by Steve Schwartz).

BARTOW – I have a friend who is incarcerated in a state prison, and from time to time I send him money so he can buy food and clothes from the prison canteen. Obviously, the money doesn’t go directly to him, but to his electronic “account” through a system called JPay, which, on its web site, happily promotes itself as the “trusted leader in inmate services.”
For a $7.95 fee, you can charge whatever amount you want to the inmates’ account. “America’s trusted inmate money transfer service,” JPay’s web site declares, and adds “JPay is a service provided to family and friends of inmates incarcerated in state, county and federal correction facilities. JPay partners with departments of corrections, prisons and jails across the country to provide money transfer, email and video visitation services for family and friends. Parolees can use JPay to pay restitution and manage a Release Debit Card.”
It all sounds so handy, like getting your bank information online or using Paypal for those Ebay purchases. So I was a bit surprised a month ago when my friend called me from the prison – and that, too, is an account you have to set up, this time with the Florida Department of Corrections’ AdvanceConnect phone system. Each 16 minute call your inmate makes to you costs $1.76. If you run out of funds, the system will happily send you an email to let you know that your account “is out of funds and someone has attempted to call you in the last 30 minutes.” The email provides you with a handy web address that takes you right to the payment site — for your convenience, naturally.
Sigh.
There’s nothing like making money off the folks who care about someone behind bars. Sometimes I’m surprised that in these days of lean and mean budgeting – DOC just sent out pink slips to 230 prison corrections officers in a move designed to save $10.6 million, courtesy of the more than $3 billion that state lawmakers had to chop out of the budget this year – the state doesn’t charge me an entry or exit fee when ever I visit my friend at his prison, a hefty “processing” fee for sending him mail, or late charges when I forget to put money on the phone account. Maybe I shouldn’t give them any new ideas.
Anyway, my friend asked if there was any possible way I could send him a little bit more money than I usually do. What’s the problem, I asked. He said they were raising prices at the canteen.
I was flabbergasted. Inmates who work at the state prisons earn pennies per hour. If they don’t have a family member or friend on the outside giving them JPay money, how do they handle inflationary prices?
My buddy had no answer. He was as frustrated and annoyed as I was.
Well, it’s been said that crime doesn’t pay, and I could direct anyone to either JPay, AdvanceConnect, or my sorry credit card bills as proof. But now, just in time for the evening news, comes yet another reminder, courtesy of Polk County’s sheriff, Grady Judd, who just decided inmates get too much of something else.
Ready for this? Underwear.
On Thursday, Judd announced that the Polk County Jail would no longer provide free underwear to male inmates booked there. He made the announcement to the Polk County commissioners with a special promise: the move could save struggling Polk County taxpayers at least $45,000 a year in operating costs.
Um … $45,000 a year … in reduced underwear expenses? Where does the sheriff buy his inmate underwear, at Bloomingdale’s?
In a news release posted on the sheriff’s web site, it was noted that “The current practice is to provide five pair of briefs to inmates who are moved from booking to housing. Beginning Aug. 1, 2011, no underwear will be provided free. Inmates will be able to purchase Fruit of the Loom underwear from the jail canteen operation for $2.54 for a pair of briefs or $4.48 for a pair of boxers.”
Judd was quoted saying “$45,000 is one person’s job we’re saving. If inmates want to wear underwear in jail, they can buy it, just like hard working Polk County citizens do.” Except, I suppose, for the Polk countians who don’t like wearing underwear at all, but that’s another column altogether.
Women, the news release noted, will continue to receive five pair of underwear – talk about sexist discrimination decades after those public bra burnings — and laundry service for all inmates still takes place twice a week, naturally operated by jail inmate labor.
Well, you know you’re punching back at crime pretty darn hard when you target an inmates’ underwear. I suppose we could eliminate jail clothing altogether and make your average jail a nudist colony. That would make those jailbirds think twice in the winter months.
The Polk County Sheriff’s Office proudly points to other fees handed down to inmates, including a booking Fee ($39), Inmate Housing Co-pay ($2 per day) and Medical Co-pays – a nurse visit is $10, dental is $15, and Inmate Personal Hygiene Kits are $4.14. Maybe a criminal reading this column will decide to commit crimes in Orange and Osceola counties instead if the co-pays are lower.
Sometimes I think the Average Joe, Lock-’Em-Up type forgets that prisons are already thoroughly miserable places where you lose your freedom, dignity and self-respect; where humiliation is a daily occurrence; where violence is common and your average “good” day is long, tedious and frustrating. And yet to show that we really, truly hate criminals, we can now hit them below the belt, so to speak — in Polk County, anyway.
Considering that the vast majority of us law abiding folks wouldn’t last two minutes in a state prison — me included — this reminds me of how tiresome this kick-’em-when-they’re-down attitude toward inmates has gotten. Talk about a painfully obvious target for our politicians to focus on.
But hey, if we can make a few bucks off them, let’s splurge.
What happens next? Inmates, I suppose, can always cry poverty – whether it’s to the jail canteen or to their friends back home — you know, the ones like me, with the credit cards. All I know, as someone who has never spent a single night in jail or prison, is that I feel a tremendous sense of aggravation every time the state of Florida reminds me that I need to put more money on my inmate phone account. It almost makes me want to rush out to Macy’s and buy some really swanky boxer shorts.

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