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After Ten Years, FCC Votes for Prison Phone Reforms!

On August 9, 2013, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn presided over a historic vote by the Commission to reform the prison phone industry, and while doing so publicly acknowledged family members and prisoners’ rights organizations that had influenced the FCC to finally make the “Wright” decision.

Thirteen years ago, the Center for Constitutional Rights co-counseled with the D.C. Prisoners’ Legal Services Project and several other attorneys to file a lawsuit, Wright v. Corrections Corporation of America, U.S.D.C. (D. DC), Case No. 1:00-cv-00293-GK, challenging an exclusive prison phone contract that resulted in high phone rates. The district court referred the case to the FCC, and an initial petition for rulemaking, called the “Wright petition,” was filed in 2003 by lawyers from the D.C. Prisoners’ Legal Services Project and attorneys Steve Seliger and Frank Krogh. An alternative petition for rulemaking was submitted in 2007, seeking to cap prison phone rates at $.20/minute for debit calls and $.25/minute for collect calls. Attorney Lee Petro with the law firm of Drinker Biddle joined the case in 2009.

The lawsuit and subsequent FCC petition resulted after Martha Wright, an 87-year-old blind grandmother who lives in the District of Columbia, sought to lower the exorbitant cost of prison phone calls. Her grandson, Ulandis Forte, was serving a 20-year sentence and the primary way she stayed in touch with him during his incarceration was by phone.

What Mrs. Wright did not know at the time was that the prison phone industry is part of a small but lucrative market, mostly unregulated and dominated by companies with ties to such corporate giants as Goldman Sachs and private equity firms. Interstate (long distance) prison phone rates range up to $17.30 for a 15-minute call – based on a $3.95 connection fee and per-minute charges of $.89. A one-hour call once a week can cost over $270 per month. Mrs. Wright faced having to choose between paying for her own medications or having regular Sunday calls with her grandson.

As a result of the financial burden unfairly placed on prisoners’ families due to the high cost of prison phone calls – in large part due to “commission” kickbacks paid by prison telecom companies to contracting government agencies – the national Prison Phone Justice Campaign was founded in 2011 by Prison Legal News, the Center for Media Justice/Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net) and Working Narratives.

PLN has reported extensively on the Wright petition and prison phone-related issues [see, e.g., PLN, Aug. 2013, p.26; July 2013, p.34; Feb. 2013, p.46; Dec. 2012, p.44; Nov. 2012, p.20], and PLN’s April 2011 cover story provided an in-depth examination of the prison phone industry, including a state-by-state assessment of phone rates and commissions. PLN submitted eight comments to the FCC and argued for a rate cap of $.05/minute for all categories of prison phone calls with no additional charges.

The Prison Phone Justice Campaign, which grew to include 55 supporting organizations and thousands of individual members, coordinated letter-writing actions involving prisoners and their families, and collected signatures on petitions submitted to the FCC. The Congressional Black Caucus, several state and federal lawmakers, and some state regulatory commissioners also voiced their support.

While prison phone companies argued that lowering phone rates and ending the commission kickbacks would compromise security in correctional facilities, eight states – California, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island and South Carolina – had eliminated commissions, with a corresponding decrease in prison phone rates. Thus, advocates had “real world” examples of how reducing prison phone rates by ending commission kickbacks would not adversely affect security.

“Those eight states have completely done away with commissions from prison phone calls, and no one is arguing that the prisons are less safe because of it,” noted Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News and executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s parent organization. “Basically, the high cost of prison phone calls is a regressive tax that falls on the backs and wallets of our most vulnerable citizens,” he continued. “The fundamental right of prisoners to communicate with their loved ones is being monetized by the government and its corporate allies. Just because someone is in prison does not mean the government has a right to price-gouge them and their families.”

Quoting statistics compiled by Prison Legal News and recognizing the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, Chairwoman Clyburn also reminded the FCC Commissioners that 2.7 million children have an incarcerated parent. “Studies have shown that having meaningful contact beyond prison walls can make a real difference in maintaining community ties, promoting rehabilitation, and reducing recidivism,” she added.

The FCC Commissioners voted 2 to 1 to reform the prison phone industry. Commissioner Ajit Pai, appointed last year by President Obama, cast the dissenting vote. Although the final order has not yet been released, it will reportedly include the following provisions:

1. All interstate prison phone rates, including ancillary charges, must be based on the actual cost of providing phone services, including necessary security features; commission payments by prison phone companies “may not be included in any interstate rate or charge.”

2. Interstate prison phone calls will have an interim rate cap of $.21/minute for debit and pre-paid calls and $.25/minute for collect calls, which will dramatically decrease the cost of long distance prison phone calls in most states. This creates a cap of $3.15 for a 15-minute debit or prepaid call, and $3.75 for a 15-minute collect call.

3. Rates up to $.12/minute for debit and prepaid interstate calls ($1.80 for a 15-minute call) and $.14/minute for interstate collect calls ($2.10 for a 15-minute call) will be considered by the FCC to be just, reasonable and cost-based, and are designated “safe-harbor” rates.

4. Prisoners and their family members who have hearing or speech disabilities and use Telecommunications Relay Services may not be charged higher phone rates.

5. There will be mandatory data collection and an annual certification requirement, plus enforcement provisions to ensure compliance with the FCC’s order.

6. The FCC will seek public comments on related issues, including prison phone rates and practices for intrastate calls (calls within a state), fostering competition to reduce the cost of prison phone calls, and addressing the needs of prisoners who are deaf or hard of hearing.

The FCC’s unprecedented order reforming the prison phone industry impacted the lives of so many people – including 2.2 million prisoners nationwide and their family members – that it generated extensive coverage by the mainstream media. For example, Prison Legal News was mentioned in news reports about the FCC’s action in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Rolling Stone and several prominent Washington, D.C. blogs.

The FCC’s order will not go into effect immediately; rather, it must first be published in the Federal Register and then will become effective 90 days later, according to the Associated Press. Further, during that time period prison phone companies or corrections officials may challenge the order in court, which would delay implementation of the reforms.

The decade-long struggle to obtain justice for people impacted by exorbitant prison phone rates has been hard fought. In addition to the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, many others contributed to this important victory – especially the attorneys who represented Mrs. Wright in her petition before the FCC, including Lee Petro, Deborah Golden and Phil Fornaci.

Mel Motel, PLN’s Prison Phone Justice Coordinator, played a pivotal role in gathering the comprehensive data relied upon by the FCC and many of the organizations that submitted comments concerning the Wright petition. PLN contributing writer John Dannenberg authored PLN’s April 2011 cover story on the prison phone industry, which was the catalyst for founding the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice. PLN editor Paul Wright and managing editor Alex Friedmann both made trips to Washington, D.C. to educate the FCC about prison phone-related issues and press for much-needed reforms.

Additionally, Nick Szuberla and Paul VanDeCarr at Working Narratives designed the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice’s website on the Nation Inside platform as a means to organize and mobilize people to take action. At the Center for Media Justice/MAG-Net, amalia deloney, Malkia Cyril, Steven Renderos and Betty Yu used their invaluable knowledge of the FCC regulatory process to guide and shape the campaign.

Numerous other organizations were actively involved in advocating for prison phone reforms, including Prison Fellowship, the Prison Policy Initiative, Prison Phone Rates Collaborative, HEARD, Color of Change, Sum of Us, the United Church of Christ’s Office of Communication, National CURE and the Equitable Telephone Charges (eTc) Campaign, directed by Kay Perry of Michigan CURE.

“Finally, after 10 years, the FCC has decided to give that constituency which has no political voice relief,” said PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann. “Rather than being the end of a very lengthy decade-long campaign,” he added, “it’s the beginning of a longer struggle to ensure additional reforms of the prison phone industry.”

Now that the FCC has taken action to address the high costs of prison telephone calls, including imposing caps on interstate phone rates, the real work begins: Ensuring that the FCC’s order is implemented and enforced, and extending similar reforms and rate caps to intrastate prison phone calls.

Sources: www.fcc.gov, www.prisonphonejustice.org, www.phonejustice.org, Associated Press, www.rollingstone.com, http://etccampaign.com, www.ccrjustice.org

 

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