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After being forced to put on hold in-person visits due to the coronavirus pandemic, federal prisons are now making calls and video visits for inmates free.

“Effective April 9, 2020, telephone calls were made free for the inmate population,” Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Michael Carvajal wrote in a letter Friday to Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., which was obtained by Politico. Klobuchar, a former Democratic presidential candidate, has been a leading voice in the Senate in raising the issue of the staggeringly high costs that phone carriers charge to prison inmates.

“Video-visiting, which is available to our female population, was also made free on that same date,” Carvajal added. The bureau operates 122 facilities across the country.

While the issue of the cost of phone calls has roiled inmates and prison reform activists for a long time, the issue has come to a head as prisons cut off in-person family and legal visits during the pandemic.


Prisons and jails across the country have come under increasing scrutiny as reports come in almost daily of outbreaks of the virus in lock-ups.

"The handling of these situations vary, but ultimately we can say our system has been ill-equipped to deal with something of this magnitude and the prison system can no longer be society's afterthought," said Michael Mendoza, national director of #cut50, a campaign to reduce crime and incarceration levels in all states. "With limited access to the proper resources, medical staff, and cleaning supplies, we fear prison systems could be hit the hardest by the virus. It is no wonder; the correctional staff refused to clean the area of the federal prisoners' area where he had previously been because they didn't have proper protective gear."

The United States has some 2.3 million inmates in around 5,000 jails and prisons across the country, and is deemed to have the largest prison population in the world and the largest per capita incarceration rate. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly 200,000 people age 55 and older are behind bars.

Implementing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, such as routine hand-washing and social distancing, is especially challenging in such environments. Most inmates not only live in close proximity to one another but also share laundries, baths and communal eating areas. Hand sanitizer, given its high alcohol content, is also mostly prohibited.


Besides phone calls, the virus has forced prisons and jails nationwide to start changing other longstanding policies and regulations. Arizona and Minnesota state prisons are now waiving the charges associated with medical visits and for medical supplies.

Some 40 states mandate that inmates must pay for soap and other personal hygiene products, but some -- including Arizona -- have turned to issuing such items for free amid the outbreak.

Additional safeguards have included facilities moving to ban visitors, limited inmates' movements and routinely screen staff for symptoms. Furthermore, at least 15 states -- including Texas, New York, California and Ohio -- have taken to releasing low-level offenders, as well as those in the elderly and sick categories and thus considered most vulnerable to being rendered in a critical condition if they contract the virus.

Fox News’ Hollie McKay contributed to this report.