Prison Phone Reform Brings Together Left and Right
Prison Phone Reform Brings Together Left and Right
Prison Phone Reform Brings Together Left and Right

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    In today’s
    polarized political climate, it is rare to see groups from traditionally
    opposite ends of the spectrum come together in support of an issue. However,
    when it comes to keeping families connected and their ability to maintain
    relationships, groups from both the left and right are meeting in the middle.

    Earlier today
    (May 18), a coalition of civil rights groups, media reform advocates, and
    conservative leaders joined together on a letter to urge the FCC to act on a
    petition which addresses the high cost of prison phone calls for families. The
    coalition included civil rights groups such as The Leadership Conference on
    Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, Public
    Knowledge, Free Press and Center for Media Justice to name a few. Conservative
    signers included David Keene, former chairman of the American Conservative
    Union and Pat Nolan, president of the Justice Fellowship.

    While civil
    rights groups are concerned with how these practices affect communities of
    color who account for a disproportionate amount of the prison population,
    conservatives highlight concerns for society as a whole.

    Former chairman
    of American Conservative Union, David Keene said, “This makes no sense. This
    does nothing to further the safety of civil society. It does nothing to help
    rehabilitate those people who have been removed from that society as a
    result of criminal convictions. And in fact, it makes it less likely that these
    people will even be able to reintegrate themselves as useful citizens.”

    The goal of the
    letter is bring attention to the lack of progress on a 2007 petition that urges
    the FCC to cap interstate prison phone rates in order to provide financial
    relief for families of prisoners. These families are innocent parties who often
    must make difficult decisions between staying connected with loved ones behind
    bars over other financial priorities.

    Wade Henderson, CEO
    of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said that, “small
    gestures that keep love and friendships growing, like a phone call on Mother’s
    Day or wishing happy birthday to your kids, are often the only way for many
    inmates to keep those close relationships alive. But many prisons don’t view
    these precious ties as rehabilitative or lifesaving. Instead, they view them as
    revenue generators – ways to pad their bottom line. This issue transcends party
    and ideology. We collectively represent millions of American households who are
    committed to reforming this outrageous and predatory practice.”

    Public Knowledge is
    concerned with the practice of commissions that lead to exorbitant rates in a
    system with little to no competition. Despite the different concerns that bring
    people together on this issue, all are in agreement in the need for immediate
    reform as explained by amalia deloney, “This is a fight for the right to call
    home! Phones are a vital part of our communication system and something most of
    us take for granted.  Yet for incarcerated individuals, phone calls and
    the connection they provide are treated as an expensive privilege rather than a
    basic right”.


    Here is the text of
    the letter:



    May 18, 2012



    Chairman Julius Genachowski

    Federal Communications Commission

    445 12th Street, SW

    Washington, DC 20554


    RE:      Docket No.
    96-128, Petitioner Martha Wright et al.,
    Alternative Rulemaking Proposal

    Dear Chairman Genachowski:


    We write to you as organizations and
    individuals that represent a wide variety of views on many issues, but that
    stand united on the need to reduce the exorbitant rates for telephone calls
    from prisons. Unreasonably high prison phone rates unjustly punish the families
    of people who are incarcerated, and contribute to rising recidivism rates by
    deterring regular telephone contact with family members and loved ones. Our
    diverse groups strongly believe that action on a petition that has been pending
    before the Federal Communications Commission since 2003 represents a critical
    opportunity for the Commission to exert its leadership in this area.
    Accordingly, we urge you to act quickly to address this problem by capping the
    charges that can be imposed for interstate prison phone calls.

    As you are aware from the record that
    has been compiled at the FCC, the costs of telephone calls from incarcerated
    people are often extraordinarily high—well beyond what most people in our
    country pay for telephone service. It is cheaper to call Singapore at 12 cents
    a minute from a cell phone than it would be to speak to someone in prison in
    this country. A typical interstate collect call from a prison has a $3.95
    connection fee (regardless of the length of the call), while rates per minute
    can be as high as almost 90 cents per
    . This can result in charges of $10-17 for a 15-minute collect call
    or $250 per month for a weekly one-hour call. Prisoners do not bear these
    costs; rather it is the family members and loved ones outside of prison who pay
    these extremely high rates.

    The high rates are caused by the system
    used to procure telephone service at correctional institutions. Prisons request
    bids from competing telephone companies, requiring each bid to include the
    payment of a fee or commission to the prison in addition to the provision of
    telephone service. The costs of the calls are passed on to prisoners’ families
    in the form of higher telephone rates, while the prison reaps the benefit of
    the extra fees and commissions.  Thus, prisons have every incentive to
    choose bids that maximize fees and maximize telephone rates—a clear “moral
    hazard.” While competition would be everyone’s first choice for constraining
    telephone prices, in this case consumers—prisoners and their families—have no
    voice in the selection of the carrier. The prison system that does select the
    carrier actually benefits from the higher rates, leaving the actual consumers
    as a literally captive market, unable to shop around for lower prices.

    Healthy relationships with their
    families and other members of the community are the most important factor in
    prisoners’ successful return to their neighborhood. Maintaining the bonds of a
    family and support network is a very effective way to reduce recidivism among
    inmates, which is an important national goal. The rate of recidivism is at
    crisis levels in the U.S.; within three years of being released, 67 percent of
    ex-prisoners re-offend and 52 percent are re-incarcerated. Americans are paying
    dearly for this trend. According to the Pew Center on the States, state and
    federal spending on corrections has grown 400 percent over the past 20 years,
    from about $12 billion to about $60 billion. Yet, predatory phone rates
    discourage regular telephone contact with stable family members and others in
    the community.

    Prisoners’ friends and families often
    provide the only opportunity incarcerated individuals will have to re-connect
    with a job and a support network that can prevent them from returning to
    prison. We need more people connecting to those in prison, not fewer. Sound
    public policy dictates that we should not disincentivize the very behavior that
    will help us keep families together and in turn reduce future crime.

    It does not have to be this way. The
    U.S. Bureau of Prisons and several states that have rejected these commission
    payments charge reasonable rates and maintain superior levels of security. A
    recent study by the Government Accountability Office found that the Bureau of
    Prisons typically charged less than most state prison systems, yet continued to
    produce some profit for use by the prison, and also met its security
    objectives. To illustrate, the Bureau of Prisons charged 6 cents per minute for
    local calls and 23 cents per minute for long-distance calls, and generated $34
    million in profits in 2010.[1]

    In sum, the exorbitant rates paid by
    prisoners’ families increase recidivism, and place an undue and unfair burden
    upon the innocent. These spiraling costs are not attributable to security needs
    and cannot be corrected by a marketplace solution. As the only agency with
    jurisdiction over long distance rates, the Federal Communications Commission is
    the correct venue to resolve this problem. A firm stance by the Commission,
    along with recommendations that will help guide the state regulatory bodies
    with authority over local telephone rates, will provide a strong impetus to
    improve the situation at every level. Prisoners will be able to be in more
    frequent contact with their loved ones, and the public will be safer as a

    For all the above reasons, we urge you
    to cap interstate prison phone call rates and take up the long-overdue task of
    protecting a vulnerable population from abusive practices. Thank you for your




    The Leadership Conference on Civil and
    Human Rights


    Rabbi Menachem Katz, The Aleph

    David Keene, American Conservative

    Gary Bauer, American Values*

    Asian American Justice Center

    Chris Cannon, Cannon Industries, Inc.*

    Center for Constitutional Rights

    Center for Media Justice

    Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for
    Race and Justice

    The Constitution Project

    Consumers Union

    Tom McClusky, FRC Action*

    Free Press

    Human Rights Defense Center

    International CURE


    Galen Carey, National Association of

    National Council of La Raza

    National Hispanic Media Coalition

    National Urban League

    New America Foundation, Open Technology



    Prison Fellowship

    Public Knowledge

    Rev. Lou Sheldon and Andrea Lafferty,
    Traditional Values Coalition*

    United Church of Christ, OC, Inc.

    United Methodist Church, General Board
    of Church and Society

    Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil
    Rights & Urban Affairs

    *Institutional affiliation listed for
    identification purposes only.