On July 10, 2013, the FCC held its first-ever workshop on prison phone rates at the agency's headquarters in Washington, DC. In front of a room packed with prison phone justice supporters, and with more than 170 watching the proceeding online, the case was firmly made: The current prison phone industry model of paying "commission" kickbacks to government agencies to secure monopoly contracts results in unacceptably high phone rates that negatively impact prisoners, their families and our communities. Thus, there is a compelling need for reform of the prison telephone industry, including a cap on the cost of prison phone calls.
The FCC workshop was led by Acting FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn and included remarks by dignitaries such as U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush from Illinois and District of Columbia Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. The day-long event included three panel presentations by advocates for prison phone reform, officials with prison phone companies, current and former members of state public utility commissions, and other stakeholders in the movement to address the high cost of calls made from prisons and jails.
"In some instances, the price of a single phone call from prison eclipses the cost of an average basic monthly telephone bill. In 42 states where there have been limited or no reforms, connection fees are running as high as $4.00 per call, on top of charges of 89 cents per minute," stated Chairwoman Clyburn. "When you consider that a 15-minute interstate call from an inmate pay phone in New York State costs less than a dollar, and that that same call next door in Pennsylvania costs $11.00, it shows that there is a real need for today's workshop."
The Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) – the parent organization of Prison Legal News – was invited to speak at the workshop, and HRDC associate director Alex Friedmann and Prison Phone Justice coordinator David Ganim traveled to DC to participate.
HRDC is recognized as a leading authority on prison telephone-related issues due to the extensive research it has conducted on the prison phone industry [see: PLN, April 2011, p.1]; the numerous comments HRDC and PLN have submitted to the FCC concerning the Wright petition; and HRDC's role as co-coordinator of the national Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, along with MAG-Net and Working Narratives. [See, e.g.: PLN, July 2013, p.34; Feb. 2013, p.46; Dec. 2012, p.44; Nov. 2012, p.20].
Friedmann led off the first panel discussion at the FCC workshop by addressing the importance of prison phone reforms. "The impact of high telephone rates on prisoners and their families cannot be overstated. Our research into this issue provides not only statistical data with respect to the cost of prison phone calls and the percentage and dollar amounts of commissions paid by [inmate calling service] providers, but also offers a window into the real-world hardships that prisoners and their families experience due to the monopolistic nature of the prison phone industry," he said.
"[T]he larger issue is why are prisoners' families being price gouged by prison phone companies in collusion with the states that accept kickbacks. And there's very little other arrangement I can think of that has a similar business model where a private company will contract with a government agency and kick back money to them to provide an incentive to provide that service, and the contracts are based not on the lowest cost to the consumer but on the highest amount of money that's kicked back to the state."
The theme of doing the "Wright" thing in terms of reducing high prison phone rates clearly resonated with many members of the audience, which included FCC commissioners and staff. The workshop also included presentations from executives with prison phone companies Telmate and Pay Tel, who tried to soften the reality that all but eight states receive commission kickbacks from prison phone service providers.
Other speakers who raised concerns about reducing prison and jail phone rates included Mitch Lucas, First Vice President of the American Jail Association, and Timothy Woods with the National Sheriffs' Association. Many jails rely on the revenue generated from prison phone commissions. While both Lucas and Woods agreed that phone rates should be reasonable, they also argued that jails – particularly small jails – should be treated differently than state prisons with respect to phone services.
For example, Lucas stated that 75 percent of jail detainees get out within 72 hours, which increases costs to prison phone companies because they have to set up accounts for people who will make only a few calls before being released. He also mentioned that free local calls provided to jail detainees were at the jail's expense.
However, according to some jail phone contracts, the cost of free calls is actually borne by the phone service company. Additionally, small jails that house under 50 prisoners account for only 3.4 percent of the nation's overall jail population, and there is no technical need to set up an account to place a collect call; that is merely another means by which to gouge consumers who receive phone calls from their incarcerated loved ones.
Peter Wagner, an attorney and executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, who was the last panel speaker at the FCC workshop, rebutted several of the arguments made by prison phone companies and their supporters. He further addressed the issue of extra fees charged by prison phone service providers – such as fees to fund pre-paid phone accounts as well as account closure, inactivity and refund fees.
Wagner noted that 12 million people pass through the U.S. jail system annually and that the extra fees associated with prisoner calls are a means for prison phone companies to generate revenue outside the commission system, since commissions aren't paid on fees. He said that small prison phone providers have smaller fees but that the larger companies, including Global Tel*Link and Securus, have some of the highest fees in the industry. Wagner concluded by stating the extra fees demonstrated that the prison phone industry, which he termed a "dark, neglected corner of the telecommunications industry," is unable to regulate itself – and that to be effective, reforms must address the problem of such fees.
Other speakers at the FCC workshop included Charlie Sullivan, co-director of National CURE; Cheryl Leanza, president of A Learned Hand and a policy advisor to the United Church of Christ's media justice and communications rights ministry; Talila Lewis, president of Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD), who testified about the hardships that deaf prisoners face with respect to the prison phone system; Amalia Deloney, associate director of the Center for Media Justice, a longtime ally in the fight for prison phone justice; Virginia Delegate Patrick A. Hope, who spoke in support of prison phone reforms; Lee Petro, the attorney who represents Martha Wright before the FCC; and Timothy Meade, president and CEO of Millicorp – the parent company of Cons Call Home, which offers alternative lower-cost phone services for prisoners' families.
In advance of the workshop, on June 8, 2013, Anthony J. Annucci, Acting Commissioner of the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision – the nation's fifth-largest state prison system – submitted a letter to the FCC. New York eliminated prison phone commissions in 2007 and currently has one of the lowest prison phone rates in the country – $.048 per minute for all types of calls. Annucci noted that after commissions were eliminated and the prison phone rates dropped, the number of phone calls increased substantially from 5.4 million in 2006 to "what we are projecting to be over 14 million in 2013."
While stating that "Operationally, the Department has experienced both benefits and challenges" as a result of banning prison phone commissions, Annucci wrote,
"[t]he Department believes that its low calling rates have helped contribute to family reunification." Further, lower prison phone rates resulted in "a lower rate of illicit cell phone use by inmates in New York. In 2012, the Department confiscated less than 100 cell phones, compared to over ten thousand annual seizures in comparably-sized correctional systems."
He concluded that "the Department's experience indicates that inmate calling rates can be reduced substantially if states eliminate their commissions on the calls, and structure competitive bidding processes that ensure that the cost of the call is among the primary attributes of their inmate calling contracts."
FCC Chairwoman Clyburn had noted in her introduction to the workshop that "In the United States, 2.7 million children have at least one parent in prison, and many of them want and need to maintain a connection to that parent." She also acknowledged that the Wright petition has been pending before the FCC for the past decade. It is readily apparent that in order to address the former issue, the FCC must take action on the latter.
Following a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking issued by the Federal Communications Commission on December 28, 2012 with respect to the Wright petition, plus thousands of public comments filed on the Wright petition's docket and now the testimony entered on the record at the FCC workshop, the ball is squarely in the FCC's court to enact reforms to ensure just and reasonable prison phone rates.
For information about the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, visit www.prisonphonejustice.org and www.phonejustice.org. Video and a transcript of the FCC workshop is available online at: www.fcc.gov/events/workshop-reforming-inmate-calling-services-rates
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