HRDC data mentioned in article on the prison phone industry
Prison phones are a predatory monopoly. One family fought back — and won.
By Colin Lecher | Photography by Amelia Krales
Every Sunday, while he was locked up in prison, Ulandis Forte would call his grandmother, Martha Wright. She would answer her old rotary, relay news from their church, and pass the phone to his sisters or to his nephew. Wright’s glaucoma made it difficult to stay in touch through letters, and apart from the rare in-person visit, the phone became Forte’s primary link to his former life. In his lowest moments, Wright would pray over her grandson through the receiver.
Other inmates, Forte remembers, made calls much less frequently. Over time, he identified a trend: the longer they’d been inside, the less likely they’d be to call anyone.
Forte was incarcerated when he was 20 years old, and by the time he was released, he was pushing 40. Over and over, Forte was relocated — from Virginia to Ohio to Arizona to Kentucky to Pennsylvania — but the Sunday calls remained a constant. For Wright, who eked out a living on the fixed income of a middle-class retiree, the calls became a fiscal burden costing her thousands of dollars. Worse, those costs were unpredictable, running on an inscrutable math that seemingly turned without reason. "Up and down, like the stock," Forte says. "It just had a mind of its own." Wright, perpetually worried about how her grandson was faring, took some time before she could tell him the calls were cutting into her budget.
Once she did, Forte decided that he simply wouldn’t call. But Wright wouldn’t stand for that, even as she faced financial choices that would test her resolve: pay for her medication, or talk to her grandson.
Forte saw that other families had confronted similar dilemmas. For many, the calls petered out and isolation set in. "The longer you’ve been in prison, the more distant you become to the outside world," he says. "People can’t afford you anymore." For years, Wright paid the bills, until she and Forte decided to challenge the system.
Although the myth of the "one phone call" has long held a place in the American imagination, the reality of communicating with family during a long-term prison stay hardly makes for the stuff of movies. To prisoners and their relations, calls are a vital connection to home. For facility operators, they’ve long been considered security holes, a means for inmates to coordinate crimes with the outside. And for inmate phone companies, along with state and local governments, the system is a lucrative business opportunity.
For decades, critics called for greater regulation of the companies, arguing that inmates and their families had effectively been priced out of staying in touch. Today, some of those regulations have been put in place, partly thanks to Wright — but a recent legal challenge may once again roll them back.
The system hasn’t always worked this way. As Cornell University professor Steven J. Jackson writes in a history of the inmate phone industry, before the 1970s, calls were limited to a maximum of one every three months in state and federal prisons. Even then, they were doled out under the discretion of a corrections official and available only by petition. But in 1973, citing evidence that touted the benefits of inmate phone contact, the Federal Bureau of Prisons created a program to "permit constructive, wholesome community contact." The use of prison payphones expanded through the decade.
AT&T was the exclusive service provider in the industry, and costs for inmates were comparable for similar services outside. But in the 1980s, an antitrust agreement pulled the Bell System apart. Meanwhile, America’s incarceration rate was booming, driven by the war on drugs and more stringent sentencing guidelines.
With AT&T in pieces, upstart phone providers saw dollar signs in the bevy of new "customers" waiting to be served. First, other major telecommunications companies, such as MCI and Sprint, moved in. Then came the specialists — dedicated outfits, like Pay Tel Communications and Global Tel*Link, willing to appeal to the specific needs of the corrections industry. Providing communications to a literally captive audience was highly profitable, and as these companies grew, they popularized a new kind of contract with local governments. These agreements hinged on an idea formally known as the "site commission contract," though critics often describe them using another word: kickback.
Unlike standard highest-bidder-wins contracts, in site commission contracts companies offer to share their revenue with facility operators. The result is a reverse-bidding system, in which the company that secures a contract isn’t the one offering the lowest price, but the one willing to share the highest percentage of its revenue. At its most extreme, the practice leads to deals like the one CenturyLink signed with Arizona in 2014: the company agreed to turn over about 94 percent of its sales revenue to the state.
The commissions became more and more common as competing service providers proliferated through the ‘90s and 2000s. State by state, the terms of the deals varied, but often the rates spiked dramatically.
The Human Rights Defense Center, a Florida-based advocacy organization that works on inmates' rights issues, keeps track of such contracts and calculates the costs of calls by state. Consider Alabama: a contract between the state Department of Corrections and CenturyLink meant that, by 2013, a 15-minute call from across state lines could cost more than $17. A 2013 contract in the state’s Baldwin county didn’t mince words, promising, in addition to an 84.1 percent commission on gross revenue from calls, "a guaranteed minimum average Commission of $55.00 per inmate per month." Those numbers translate to massive profits: buoyed by commissions, the state was earning more than $3 million a year from inmate phone services in 2014.
Forte was a 20-year-old college freshman, home in DC for Christmas break, when he committed the crime that would put him in prison.
Over the holidays, Forte came back to the tree-lined, residential neighborhood where he grew up: Brookland. It was the winter of 1994 and Forte spent time visiting his friends and family. He says that back in those days, the neighborhood was close — the kind of community where the children grew up together, and everyone knew everyone else.
As a child, Forte lived with Wright. She was an independent nurse and her house was full of patients. Forte says he learned responsibility from the tasks he was delegated, like giving haircuts to the patients or providing their medications. At night, everyone would gather for family meals. With her large brown sunglasses and close-cropped gray hair, Wright was an outsize presence, even in her later years. The family called her Big Momma. Wright passed away in January of 2015, on Forte’s birthday.
On January 20th, 1994, according to a signed affidavit, police responded to reports of a shooting on a block close to DC’s Catholic University of America, about a mile away from Wright’s home. When they arrived after midnight, the police found a man named Lonnie Jones in a car, alive, with a gunshot wound to the back of the head. Jones was transported to surgery at a nearby hospital, where he died at 4AM that morning.
Police later interviewed a man who told officers that whoever shot Jones had also shot him twice before fleeing. That witness, and later a second witness, picked Forte out of a photo lineup as the shooter.
Forte says a friend had warned him that someone from the neighborhood was planning to rob him, so he was carrying a gun for protection. Yes, he says, he shot two people in a panic, but ran for help after. In our conversations, Forte wouldn’t go into detail about the police version of events, or the specifics of the Lonnie Jones shooting. Facing a murder one charge, Forte, after a mistrial, took a plea deal for manslaughter and illegal possession of a pistol. The manslaughter charge translated into a sentence of 10 to 30 years in prison. Wright paid for his lawyer.
Forte was sent to Lorton Reformatory, an infamous Virginia prison. Wright was close enough to make regular visits, but in 1997 Lorton was ordered to be shut down and its inmates were transferred to the sprawling network known as the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In the interim, Forte was turned over to the private corrections industry.
First, Forte was incarcerated at a Youngstown, Ohio prison run by the Corrections Corporation of America. From Ohio, Forte was shipped to New Mexico, before finally being transferred to another CCA facility in Florence, Arizona, more than 2,000 miles away from his grandmother. Wright would visit him in almost every state he was transferred to, asking for help to make the journey.
And then there were the phone calls, and the costs. "The phone call should be maybe $10, maybe $12. [Instead,] phone calls were $25, $30 — sometimes $60," Forte says. "They were just doing whatever they wanted to do. There was nothing we could do to stop it." Sometimes, the bills ran into the hundreds of dollars.
Struggling with mounting prison phone bills, Wright reached out to the DC Prisoners’ Project, a nonprofit organization, to ask for help. So did others. Forte says he spread the word around the CCA, and inmates and their kin compared notes. It became apparent that families were being charged exorbitant phone rates.
"As [the issue] got raised and we found out more about it, we went to other prisoners and family members and said, ‘Is this true? Is this a problem?’" says Elliot Mincberg, senior counsel at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, a group that absorbed the DC Prisoners’ Project in 2006. A group of inmates and their families coalesced with legal representation from the organization.
Thanks to her tireless work and early involvement, Wright was the group’s figurehead: her name became synonymous with their efforts. In 2000, the group brought a class action suit against inmate phone companies and Corrections Corporation of America, the company that ran the prison where Forte was incarcerated. The suit alleged that the exclusive contracts they’d entered into had unjustly escalated phone prices and in turn violated inmates’ constitutional rights. Wright became the lead petitioner, and the case was styled as Martha Wright, et al vs. Corrections Corporation of America, et al.
But in 2001, the judge hearing the lawsuit decided that the group would have to seek relief with the Federal Communications Commission. After two years of mandated negotiations, the plaintiffs, now known as the Martha Wright petitioners, requested new rules for inmate phones.
The request started a bureaucratic procedure so sluggish it would take years to work itself out. The FCC had no deadline to act, and the petition moved into an evidence-gathering period where it languished for years. The docket grew and grew, but produced little more than paperwork. "I thought they had dropped it and forgot about it," Wright would later tell The Washington Post. So in 2007, the petitioners at the FCC attempted a different tactic.
Rather than tackling the question of exclusive contracts, the group asked the FCC to confront rates with a new set of rules that would cap the cost of cross-state debit calls at 20 cents per minute and collect calls at 25 cents per minute. But the commission showed little interest in pushing the petition forward, and it failed to gain momentum. In the meantime, phone companies and corrections departments across the country argued that a cap would push them off a fiscal cliff. Then, in 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Mignon Clyburn to the FCC.
In March, I traveled to DC to meet with Clyburn at FCC headquarters. Her windows overlooked sterile government buildings, and her desk was covered in documents. In the middle sat the centerpiece of her office: a Motorola DynaTAC cellphone — a hulking, brick-sized relic from the 1980s, gifted to her by its creator, Martin Cooper.
Clyburn first met Forte, who was paroled in the summer of 2012, a decade after Wright had started the process at the FCC. That September, Clyburn invited him and Wright to FCC headquarters for a screening of Middle of Nowhere, a film from Selma director Ava DuVernay that chronicles a woman’s life after her husband is sent to prison.
In 2013, Clyburn was made interim chairwoman of the FCC. For Clyburn, a former publisher of a Charleston newspaper, the rates were a matter of justice — another strike against the poor, whether they were guilty or not.
Though she only held her position for less than six months, she made changing the rates a priority. In a two-to-one vote that year, the commission passed new rules that capped cross-state phone rates: anywhere in the country, one minute on a collect call would cost one quarter. "This all began with one Washington, DC grandmother, Mrs. Martha Wright, who spoke truth to power in 2003, and reminded us that one voice can still spur a movement and drive meaningful change," Clyburn said in a statement on the FCC’s decision. But the phone companies and facility operators wouldn’t accept reduced rates without a fight.
In February I spoke with Rick Smith, the CEO of Securus Technologies, one of the largest inmate phone companies in the world. The company claims to offer services to more than 1.2 million inmates in North America.
Securus is based in Texas, and Smith has the plainspokenness the state’s citizens are known for. Though he rarely grants interviews, he was eager to improve his company’s reputation. The anecdotes of customers paying hundreds or thousands of dollars in bills are exaggerations, he says. And the negative publicity of inmate phone companies has resulted in death threats against him.
Smith defended his company’s profits on many of the same grounds other inmate phone companies do. The contracts, he says, are a source of funds for crucial corrections services like health care. "It’s really a public policy issue," Smith says. Securus also provides security services, recording calls sent through its system and intervening to break up any illegal plots that it detects. "We really feel like we perform kind of a noble service for society," he says.
The National Sheriffs’ Association, a trade group representing law enforcement, largely agrees, writing in comments to the FCC that inmate calling rates are "misunderstood." Not only does a monopoly industry provide security, the association argues, but the exclusive contracts are a necessary way to fund a phone system.
The Sheriffs’ Association represents jail administrators across the country, and critics say they have a considerable financial stake in the status quo. The group, they point out, lists inmate phone companies Global Tel*Link, PayTel, Keefe Group, and Telmate as "corporate partners."
The alternative to high rates isn’t lower rates, the association has suggested — the alternative is that phone calls in jails will be done away with entirely. "Absent these commissions," association president Larry D. Amerson wrote in a comment to the FCC, "counties would need to either increase taxes for the system or jails could potentially cease to provide inmates with this service."
In 2015, the FCC voted to further expand the rate caps for local and long-distance calls: 11 cents for prisons and at higher, tiered prices for jails, based on inmate population. Forte, out of prison and thankful to have a job, couldn’t be there to witness the second vote — as important as it was, he couldn’t miss work, he says. Wright didn’t make the vote, either. She had passed away earlier in the year.
Since then, Forte says he hasn’t been apprised of the legal machinations as much as he’d like. Still, things are going well for him. He’s been employed ever since his release. He’s also married, and now has a young daughter. He and his wife have been able to travel — to Puerto Rico, to the Dominican Republic.
The capped rates his grandmother fought for, meanwhile, have been put on hold. After the FCC adopted its 2015 rate limits, phone companies and some states sued, asking a court to halt the rules until the suit made its way through court. They succeeded on two points, partially blocking the FCC’s new rules, and then halting an attempt to apply the 2013 caps to more calls. "Am I overjoyed at this point?" Clyburn says. "I can’t say that I am. But what we will do is defend this in court." How long that might take isn’t clear.
In its motion to partially stop the rules, lawyers for Global Tel*Link admit that higher rates can be an issue, but places the blame on site commissions. As the FCC didn’t directly intervene in the commissions system, the argument goes, such a radical change in the rate structure would prevent phone companies from recouping their losses.
"Even though the FCC kept the site commissions process in play, and permitted sheriffs and DOCs to receive site commissions, those counties and correctional authorities still ran to the court and said, ‘We’re not going to get enough,’" says Lee Petro, an attorney with the firm Drinker Biddle & Reath who’s worked as pro bono counsel to the Martha Wright Petitioners since 2010.
When I first met Forte in Washington, prison life and court disputes seemed distant. It was warm, and the city’s cherry blossoms signalled spring’s approach. We introduced ourselves in front of his grandmother’s house, and retraced the few blocks Forte used to walk every day to school. Since he was away, the old, brown-brick school he’d remembered had been completely remodeled.
People he used to know have changed, too. He found his old barber through Facebook, but discovered that many in the neighborhood had moved on. Forte himself was surprised by how little he’d changed, at least on the outside. He says a prison life free of vice has kept him youthful, and it shows: a young face and bright disposition belies the fact that he’s now 42 years old. Others weren’t so lucky. "Sometimes you can tell when a person’s been to prison," he says. "They may seem cold-hearted. You can just see it all over."
Wright kept the church informed about Forte, and the parishioners welcomed him back when he was released. Thanks to the weekly phone calls, Forte says, his return to the outside world was almost seamless. "I was able to stay in contact with my grandmother, with the outside world," he says. "It did a great justice for me."