WHEN A person is incarcerated in a jail or prison, part of the punishment shouldn't be forcing his family members to pay outrageous phone charges to talk to him. But that's what happens in Alabama and many other states. 
In fact, Alabama county jails and state prisons have come to depend on the extra income from the inflated phone charges -- essentially balancing their budgets on the pocketbooks of inmates' families, who often are the least able to afford the higher phone bills. 

It's not clear how much Alabama's 67 counties get each year from phone company commissions, which the companies pay for the opportunity to offer phone service in the jails. The Department of Corrections, though, says prisons generate about $500,000 a month from the commissions; and it's estimated that some individual
jails take in $100,000 or more a year. 

That's money, of course, that the phone companies recoup from the families of inmates by charging higher rates. In a county jail, a 15-minute call costs $2.85, or 19 cents a minute. Long-distance calls cost 49 cents a minute. (The families pay because inmates can only make collect calls, which is a rea sonable restriction.) 

Granted, many people have scant sympathy for inmates and their families. But there are broader issues involved. 

Criminal justice specialists say contact between inmates and their families promotes rehabilitation in many cases. And more significant, extracting this money from inmate families hides the true cost of incarceration, and unfairly forces a segment of the public -- and a poverty-stricken segment at that -- to bear a disproportionate share of the public expense. 

Alabama isn't alone in doing this, of course. Indeed, among the states, only Nebraska does not participate in this exploitation. 

Alabama lawmakers should limit phone company commissions, and let inmates use prepaid calling cards. Other options include prisoner debit cards, letting prisoners call residential 800 numbers, and allowing call recipients to select the carrier for collect calls. 

Eliminating the windfall phone profits will put a crunch on jail and prison budgets that will have to be made up through direct state appropriations. But isn't that the way the correctional facilities should have been funded all along?