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Organizations Submit Letters to FCC Urging Action on Prison Phone Rates

On October 23, 2012, the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), which publishes Prison Legal News, submitted a joint letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) urging action on the “Wright Petition,” which asks the FCC to place caps on interstate prison phone rates to make them more affordable.

The Wright Petition has been pending before the FCC since 2003. Sixty criminal justice organizations signed on to the joint letter, including the American Friends Service Committee, Correctional Association of New York, National CURE, Southern Center for Human Rights, Justice Policy Institute, Prison Policy Initiative and The Sentencing Project.

The letter described problems with the unregulated prison phone industry and highlighted the “commission” kickback system that drives up the cost of prison telephone calls in most states. According to HRDC’s letter, some consumers pay more than $17.00 for a 15-minute interstate prison phone call; in many cases it costs more to accept a collect call from a prisoner in another state than it does to place a call to China.

On November 5, 2012 the Center for Media Justice (CMJ) submitted another joint letter to the FCC asking for action on the Wright Petition. This time 96 groups concerned with media justice and social justice signed the letter, which described how the increasingly long distances between prisoners and their families mean that phone calls are the only way many prisoners can communicate with the outside world. Among the signatories to the CMJ letter were the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Prison Creative Arts Project, Free Press, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and the Media Literacy Project.

HRDC assisted the University of California Davis Immigration Law Clinic in submitting a third joint letter to the FCC on November 8, 2012 that was signed by 110 organizations and academic and legal professionals concerned about the rights of immigrant detainees. Professor Holly S. Cooper, Associate Director of the Immigration Law Clinic, coordinated the letter. Signatories included the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, Detention Watch Network, Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center, National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, UC Davis Civil Rights Clinic, Amnesty International USA and Enlace (a project of Communities United for People).

The November 8 letter also urged the FCC to pass the Wright Petition, this time highlighting the unique hardships experienced by immigrants in U.S. detention facilities. According to the letter, high phone rates make it difficult for immigrant detainees facing deportation or seeking asylum to contact their families, legal counsel, consulates and human rights organizations. For many immigrants in detention, access to telephones is vital. The letter cited the example of an applicant for political asylum who fears torture or persecution in her home country and must present evidence to substantiate her claims.
Adequate phone access is necessary to secure evidence such as witness statements and human rights reports, and failure to do so can mean deportation to a country where her life is in danger.

“Having reasonable, competitive phone rates for individuals in immigration detention merely enshrines basic human rights protections for immigrants seeking asylum, family unity and freedom – rights that are core to the United States’ democratic principles,” noted Professor Cooper.

A joint letter to the FCC from faith-based organizations and religious leaders in support of lowering the cost of prison phone calls is forthcoming. Additionally, several organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Prison Fellowship, have submitted separate letters.

National groups are not the only ones that have been pushing the FCC to act on the Wright Petition. Since June 2012, more than 370 letters have poured into the FCC’s office from prisoners and their families, many of them PLN readers. [See: PLN, Nov. 2012, p.20]. If you have not yet done so, please consider writing to the FCC to explain the impact that high prison phone rates have had on you and your family. See p.13 of this issue for details on contacting the FCC.

On November 14, 2012, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski indicated the FCC would begin the process of considering the Wright Petition, including a public comment period – the first significant action taken by the agency concerning prison phone rates. PLN will report on this and other developments in the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice in next month’s issue.

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