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From the Editor

The gouging of prisoner’s families and friends by prison and jail officials and the telephone industry is a well-known phenomenon but also one that is fairly recent. Telephones were not introduced into prisons and jails until the 1970s (the state of Texas was the last to introduce phones to its prison system in 2010). It took almost two decades before the telecom industry figured out that they could get lucrative contracts by offering “commissions,” the euphemism for kickbacks, to prison and jail officials in exchange for monopoly contracts that allowed them to charge as much as they wanted.

Two decades later the practice is entrenched and normalized. In the mid 1990’s the Wall Street Journal estimated that the prison and jail phone call racket was a billion dollar-a-year industry, but no one really knew the extent of it. This issue’s cover story on the prison phone industry is unique because it is the first time anyone has ever looked at the actual contracts and dollar amounts generated by the prison phone racket.

As Mike Rigby’s side bar article makes clear, getting this information was not easy and, in fact, at least half the states produced considerable obstacles to our being able to obtain the documents. Due to limited resources we concentrated on telephone contract information for state prison systems, not the nation’s 3,800 jails or private prisons, military prisons, juvenile prisons, immigration prisons, civil commitment centers or the myriad other places where Americans are held against their will and their captivity is monetized by their captors and corporations alike.

This research project was made possible by a small grant that Prison Legal News received from the Media Justice Fund at the Funding Exchange, which allowed us to devote considerable resources to tracking down the data and analyzing it. Investigative journalism is time consuming and resource intensive, a polite way of saying it costs money to do.

Since 2003 the Federal Communications Commission has been sitting on a petition, In re Wright (no relation), which calls on the FCC to regulate the cost of interstate prison and jail telephone calls. The petition has been vigorously opposed by the telecom and prison industry alike. As this issue goes to press, the FCC has not issued a decision. PLN has submitted extensive comments to the FCC, as have over 3,700 parties, as to why the cost of prison and jail calls should be regulated. We will also be submitting this month’s cover story to the FCC for their consideration in that matter.

We would like to thank the Media Justice Fund for making this month’s cover story possible. It illustrates the reality that serious, hard-hitting investigative reporting requires resources to do. As previously noted, we had to file suit against the Mississippi Department of Corrections to obtain their prison telephone contract, as they claimed it was a confidential document and had filed it under seal in court lest the citizens of Mississippi learn the scope and extent of the kickbacks received by their prison system.
Sadly, the obvious conflict of interest with prisons and jails profiting off their captives is of little concern to legislators and the government agencies that sign prison phone contracts. The use of cell phones by prisoners has received widespread attention nationally. The role of corrupt employees in bringing the cell phones into facilities is typically ignored or glossed over, but more significantly, the effort to stamp out prison cell phone use in order to protect the monopoly on high prison telephone kickbacks is largely ignored – as if government officials have no profit motive in the matter. For those who believe in capitalism, the prison cell phone market is an illustration of the magic of the marketplace, where corrupt staff profit from selling prisoners cell phones and the prisoners find cell phone bills cheaper to pay than the exorbitant rates charged by prison and jail telephone monopolies.

As I write this editorial, I have finished interviewing Hollywood action star Danny Trejo, a former prisoner himself and one of the most prolific living actors. Mr. Trejo shares his story of going from prison to work as a substance abuse counselor to one of the most famous actors in the world (he has appeared in over 200 movies). We will publish the interview in an upcoming issue of PLN. This is part of a new series of interviews in PLN with former prisoners who have not only turned their lives around and succeeded, but who have succeeded exceptionally well by any standard.

All too often prisoners and former prisoners hear only negativity about being “failures” and having neither hope nor opportunity. There are plenty of examples to the contrary and we will be bringing them to you. Over the years I have been asked “how could you start PLN while you were inside a maximum security prison?” Why couldn’t I is the better question. The bigger limits are not always the ones imposed on us but the ones we impose on ourselves.

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