Pa. prisons rush to add phones after rates drop

    Lower phone rates for state prison inmates this holiday season are presenting Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections with a classic lesson in economics: What happens when pent-up demand meets low supply.

    The agency announced a drastic drop in phone rates right before Thanksgiving – from about 20 cents per minute to about 6 cents per minute.

    “The reduction in the phone rate will go a long way to keep inmates connected to their families and friends, which is an important part of the reentry process – a strong support system,” said Secretary John Wetzel in a written statement.

    But advocates said the lower rates have caused a sustained run on phones, revealing an insufficient supply.

    “Now everyone can afford it,” said Christina Morales whose boyfriend has been a state inmate, with some interruption, since about 2008. Morales said before the rate change, she talked with her boyfriend for about an hour every day.

    “Now it’s like Black Friday at the mall – you know, the line is around the corner,” said Morales. She said these days, she’s lucky if she and her boyfriend talk for a full 15 minutes once a week. “People are fighting and stabbing each other. I mean, they’ve been locked down going through all this different stuff since it happened.”

    A spokeswoman said the Department of Corrections is going to install more phones, but most won’t be in place until after the holidays.

    “While this may cause an inconvenience, the inmates do get to take advantage of a significantly lower calling rate,” said Susan McNaughton. “Until we are able to install additional phones, we ask for everyone’s patience and to understand that the waiting lists are to ensure equality.”

    If they don’t have inmates’ patience, they certainly have their attention. Lauren Snyder, with the advocacy group Justice and Mercy, said she saw inmates in a Scranton-area institution preparing for additional phones in the prison’s sheet-metal shop.

    “They are making more of those makeshift phone booths,” Snyder said. “So that kind of indicated to me, hmm, they’re probably going to put more phones in.”

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal