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Our Fathers Were Sent to Prison and We Couldn’t Afford to Stay Connected

We are just two of millions of children who’ve experienced family separation due to incarceration and the obscene costs of prison communications. Now we fight to make these services free.

Hand on fence
Photo by Milad Fakurian on Unsplash

We were just children, ages four and 14, when our fathers were ripped out of our lives and sent to federal prison. Whether we witnessed the violence of his arrest or learned of it in the hours that followed, the indescribable terror of the moment has impacted us since. The delicate walls that protected our physical, psychological, and emotional safety crumbled on those days, and years later, the bricks we’ve replaced still don’t quite fit.

Neither of our families had much, so the loss of our fathers was a huge financial burden. First, we suffered from the loss of income. Then came the new costs of their incarceration. It started with exorbitant bills for simple calls from prison, which could run hundreds of dollars a month and almost immediately proved too expensive.

Already struggling to make ends meet, our mothers stopped answering the phone. We slowly began to lose contact with our fathers. For one of us, this meant hours-long drives for visits every few weeks. For the other, it would be a decade before we’d see our father again—now with a tattoo on his chest of a little girl who could no longer recognize him.

Stories like these are far too common among children facing parental incarceration. More than five million kids in the United States today have had a parent incarcerated at some point in their childhood. Many more adults like us suffered this reality growing up during the prison boom that began in the 1970s.

It’s time we recognize that incarceration is a form of family separation with generational consequences. The high cost of prison communication only compounds the harmful effects on children by making it difficult or impossible for them to stay connected with their incarcerated parents. Addressing this problem fully will require broader action to reduce our nation’s reliance on incarceration, but there is another policy we can quickly implement in the interim to curb its negative impacts on children: free prison and jail communication.

In many prisons and jails today, multi-million dollar correctional telecom corporations like Securus and ViaPath charge families over 50 cents per minute for phone calls and even more for video calls. Not even email is free: A simple message can run as high as 50 cents, or more with attachments. These corporations have even conspired with government officials to ban visits in exchange for a share of the profits in an effort to force incarcerated people and their loved ones to use their egregiously priced services.

With no alternative to these predatory services, families face impossible choices between paying bills and communicating with their incarcerated loved ones. In the end, these costs drive one in three families with an incarcerated loved into debt and lead many to sever connections entirely.

In recent years, families and advocates have ignited a movement to make prison and jail communication free. Since 2018, the federal Bureau of Prisons, five state prison systems—California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Minnesota—and several county jails have made communication free, providing benefits for both families and public safety. And today, more than a new dozen states are considering similar legislation.

As a result of this advocacy, more than 300,000 incarcerated people and their families now have access to fully free calls. A national leader in this movement, Worth Rises, where we both now work, estimates that families have saved over $400 million dollars in communication costs and used over two billion additional call minutes to date thanks to these policy wins. 

For too long, our criminal legal system has incarcerated people with no regard for the impact on those around them, especially children and disproportionately those from Black and brown and low-income families like ours. Each of us shares an experience defined by stigma, shame, and, eventually, perseverance, which forever changes relationships with both our incarcerated and non-incarcerated parents.

In 2024, no child should be cut off from their parent simply because they can’t afford to remain in contact. Policymakers in every state and county must move to loosen the stranglehold of predatory prison telecom industries with policies that make prison and jail communication free. We deserved to have our fathers in our lives. This Father’s Day, and every day, we’re fighting to make that a reality for all children suffering parental incarceration thanks to a system that has ignored them.

Ta’Mara Hill is the Director of Policy Campaigns and Government Affairs at Worth Rises and based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Morgan Duckett is a Corporate Campaigns Associate at Worth Rises and based in Atlanta, Georgia.