Long Distance Highway Robbery

“And I am calling long distance, don’t worry ’bout the cost ‘cause it’s been forty years or more.”    — Tom Waits

I was driving today and I heard the old Madonna song “La Island Bonita” on the radio.  The song, as many do, immediately triggered a memory and as I sang along I could hear my Grandpa’s voice as clear as if he were in the car with me.  “Why are you singing on the answering machine?” he grumbled, “this is long distance.”

When I was in college my roommate and I loved to make up lyrics to songs and sing them as our outgoing message on the answering machine.  So instead of singing something like, “tropical the island breeze” we’d sing,  “won’t you leave a message please”.   We didn’t let our lack of musical talent or inability to hold a tune hold us back either, we belted those songs out. Yes, we were total dorks but it was fun.

It wasn’t fun for my grandparents, who would call me long distance from Florida once a week. Every time he got my answering machine, my grandpa complained about the long outgoing message increasing his long distance bill.

In those days, long distance was a big thing because you paid by the minute, and it was expensive.  Everyone would try to make their calls after 9 p.m. or on weekends when they were cheaper, but it was still pricey, so listening to us giggle and sing waiting for the tone came at a price.

It’s hard to believe now with cell phones and VOIP calling long distance is essentially the same price as making a local call. It wasn’t that long ago that Elaine on Seinfeld didn’t want a phone number with a newly-added New York City area code because she was afraid people would think it was long distance and not call.

Now no one really worries about whether a call is long distance or not. Unless you’re in an institution. Jails and even some hospitals are using long-distance calls that are essentially free as a way to exploit those who are vulnerable.

Recently a friend was in jail out of state and tried to call me.  It came through as a collect call, but when I tried to accept the charges it told me I needed to set up an account with some contractor.  I checked into it, and in order to accept a call they required a lot of personal information, including a social security number and credit check, and a $50 minimum purchase of a calling card.  That’s right, they wanted to do a credit check for the “privilege” of purchasing a calling card and accepting a call.  No way I was doing that.

I also saw that they would charge $3.99 a minute for the call. Think about that: $3.99 a minute? That’s highway robbery especially when you know it only costs pennies to make that call. Someone is profiting big off the families and friends of people who are incarcerated and that’s just ridiculous.

Needless to say, I declined the call, and several subsequent calls.  I felt bad but I’m not sharing personal information or paying those prices if I don’t have to.

I did a little research and found that this practice is pretty much standard in jails and prisons, but increasingly hospitals are using for-profit contractors to charge sick people and their friends and families exorbitant prices for making or receiving a call.  They’re making a profit off of people’s suffering – even more than they already do.

I guess my singing voice isn’t the worst thing about long-distance calls anymore.

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