“My parents, 84 and 85 years old, barely can pay their bills with their income,” wrote prisoner Robert Taylor in his letter to the FCC. He noted that telephone calls are the only way to communicate with his aging parents, as his mother suffers from macular degeneration, a medical condition that results in loss of vision, and cannot read or write.
His parents “often go without meals to be able to cover the cost of hearing my voice,” Taylor said. “It’s a shame for these companies to be able to gouge our families so hard that they have to miss meals just to speak to their loved ones.”
According to FCC Docket #96-128 (known as the Wright Petition), more than 200 people from Oregon to Virginia have submitted letters since PLN started running the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice flyer in June. Of those, 173 were comments from prisoners and the rest came from prisoners’ families, friends and other people concerned about expensive prison phone calls.
The letters to the FCC highlight the devastating effects that prison phone rates have on prisoners’ ability to communicate. Vickie Goodwillie lives in Eugene, Oregon, but her son is incarcerated at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman. “Because of the cost of collect phone calls being so high, I haven’t been able to speak to him at all,” Goodwillie said.
Homeless and with an income of just $130 a month, she added, “If the calls were cheaper, I could pay a friend at least once a month for a collect call. But as it is now I’d be paying my friend every penny of my income and have nothing left over to live on.”
“Right now, my father is dealing with health problems and I can’t call him to see what’s going on,” wrote Terry Barton, a prisoner at the Sussex II State Prison in Virginia. “Every day I just hope I don’t get bad news that he’s passed away and I couldn’t talk to him before it happens.”
The Campaign for Prison Phone Justice is a joint project of Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net), Working Narratives and the Human Rights Defense Center – the parent organization of Prison Legal News. The Campaign’s current focus is on the national issue of getting the FCC to limit interstate (long distance) prison phone rates, as the FCC only has jurisdiction over interstate phone services. The next phase will prioritize supporting statewide campaigns for fair local and intrastate phone rates for prisoners and their loved ones.
Of course the Campaign is not the first effort to mobilize people to fight against the unjust prison phone industry. When PLN researcher and writer Mike Rigby collected data on prison phone contracts in 2008 and 2009 [see: PLN, April 2011, p.1], he found that eight states did not accept kickback commissions from phone companies, which resulted in lower rates. Many organizations and individuals in those states had worked to put pressure on policymakers to end price-gouging by prison phone companies.
The Campaign for Prison Phone Justice has drawn lessons and inspiration from such organizing to continue to push for changes on the federal level and to strengthen local efforts, and letters from prisoners have helped drive the message home in meetings with elected officials.
In August 2012, Amalia Deloney from MAG-Net and the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice met with staff from FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn’s office, highlighting the hundreds of letters and comments entered on the docket for the Wright Petition.
“Staff were very excited to hear about the hundreds of online postcards filed from the Mother’s and Father’s Day actions, and they were incredibly moved to hear about the letters from inmates themselves,” Deloney stated.
Additionally, the Campaign has brought together grassroots groups and individuals to meet with elected officials in California, New York and West Virginia to urge them to press the FCC to act on the Wright Petition, which has been pending for almost ten years.
Some federal lawmakers are taking up the fight for prison phone justice, too. On September 12, 2012, U.S. Representatives Henry A. Waxman (D-CA) and Bobby L. Rush (D-IL) sent a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, calling on the FCC to take action on the issue of high prison phone rates.
“Research shows that regular contact between prisoners and family members during incarceration reduces recidivism. Phone calls are the primary means for families to maintain contact with incarcerated relatives,” the Representatives wrote in their joint letter.
“Experts across the political spectrum have recommended minimizing the cost of prison phone calls as a way to support strong family relationships with inmates,” Waxman and Rush noted. “Yet under current policies and practices, prisoners and their families pay unusually high rates for phone service that discourage regular contact.”
No one knows better than prisoners and their family members who is harmed by the high phone rates and the com-mission kickbacks that drive up the cost of prison phone calls.
“It is unfair to lock up the poorest people in this country only to allow predatory phone companies to exploit them,” federal prisoner Kevin Johansen said in a letter to the FCC.
“Limiting a prisoner’s connection to his family damages his stability in prison and in transitioning back into the [free]world.”
“I hope you can see that the practice of prison phone price gouging affects the prisoner’s family and society as a whole in a way that outweighs any justification put forth by prison officials. All they care about is kick-backs,” wrote Matthew Davis, incarcerated at the Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois.
Commenters who sent letters to the FCC also spoke about the impact of exorbitant prison phone rates on their ability to communicate with their children.
“The phone call prices are so outrageous it is impossible to keep in touch with my children,” remarked Eric Vickers, one of the many prisoners at Sussex II State Prison in Virginia who contacted the FCC.
“Although I cannot have an immediate impact on my children’s lives, I would still love to have some type of influence on them and the choices they make so that hopefully they never end up inside the walls of prison other than to visit their father,” he added.
“Please help us, help our children. Please,” Vickers stated. His request is a reminder that the effects of high prison phone rates extend beyond prisoners, to their families and to entire communities.
However, prisoners and their supporters are not the only ones contacting the FCC; prison phone companies are submitting letters and comments, too. For example, on October 3, 2012, Global Tel*Link, the nation’s largest prison phone service provider, filed a comment with the FCC that summarized its positions on issues related to the prison telephone industry, including justifications for high phone rates. Five days later the Human Rights Defense Center filed a response with the FCC, rebutting the points addressed by Global Tel.
If you have not already done so, you can contribute to the fight to end abusive prison phone rates by sending a brief letter to the FCC explaining the effect that high prison phone costs have had on you and your family. Address the letter “Dear Chairman Genachowski,” and please speak from your own personal experience. You must state the following at the beginning of your letter: “This is a public comment for FCC Docket #96-128 (the Wright Petition).” Your letter will be made part of the public docket. Send your comments to:
Chairman Julius Genachowski
Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street NW
Washington, DC 20554
If you don’t take action, then you have no right to complain about the abusive practices of prison phone companies and how they exploit prisoners and their families. So get involved, and encourage others – both in prison and on the outside – to get involved, too. The website for the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice is: www.phonejustice.org.
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