By Sarah Orange, Certified Student Attorney, Community Justice Project at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. The work of the Community Justice Project civil rights clinic focuses on training law students to serve as social engineers who create new inroads to justice and freedom.
Children across the Nation are often the invisible victims of mass incarceration. In June 2013, Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organization behind the popular children’s TV show Sesame Street, recognized this challenge when it launched a new program called “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration.” This program seeks to reach the 2.7 million children in the U.S. with an incarcerated parent through videos, crafts, music, and more. In one of the Sesame Street videos about incarceration, Alex (if you haven’t watched the show in a while that’s the orange puppet with blue hair) talks about how his father is incarcerated and the difficulties that he and other children like him face, including not always being able to talk to their parent. This program recognizes the importance of maintaining communication between children and their incarcerated parent. Maintaining routine communication is essential for helping children to understand and successfully cope with this difficult situation. A little phone call can make a big difference in the lives of children with an incarcerated parent.
Did you know: of the 2.7 million children with an incarcerated parent, 15,000 of them live right here in Minnesota? However, Minnesotan children are often denied the ability to maintain close contact with their incarcerated parent. First, because prisoners are incarcerated an average of 100 miles away from their families making in person visits difficult. Second, because it costs over $17 to make a 15-minute collect phone call out of a Minnesota prison. It is cheaper to call Singapore. These phone calls are so expensive because prison phone providers attract government contracts by offering the state a kickback – a percentage of the prison phone provider’s profits. In Minnesota, the prison system receives 49% of the profit that the phone provider makes from prison phone calls. However, community members and local civil rights organizations are taking action to stop this injustice. The Federal Communications Commission recently adopted policy changes regarding interstate prison phone calls which will lower phone rates across state lines and in federal prisons, however, these reforms do not affect intrastate (local) calls in Minnesota. Much more work is needed to address this issue within Minnesota in order to support children and families. For the children impacted, this cost barrier to communication can have devastating effects, resulting in emotional stress and behavioral challenges.