Captive Customers Ask FCC for Relief

Recently, the FCC has received hundreds of letters from prisoners across the country asking Chairman Genachowski for action on the Wright petition, which calls on the agency to provide a solution for exorbitant prison phone rates. These letters are result of the Prison Phone Justice Campaign where campaign partner Prison Legal News ran an ad in their newspaper, asking incarcerated individuals to share their personal experiences.

These letters include stories of lost friendships, severed family connections and the difficultly of maintaining legal counsel due to the high cost of calls. Stories that often times get lost in the politics of policy making. Public Knowledge along with many other public interest advocacy organizations, continue to urge the FCC and the public, to keep these at the forefront of their rulemaking decision regarding the Wright Petition.

The story of interstate prison phone regulation was referred from the court system in 2001, laying this issue squarely within the FCC’s authority. Since then, pro-bono counsel for Martha Wright, a grandmother of an inmate, have been petitioning the FCC to establish a benchmark long distance service rate within state correctional facilities. The goal is to provide swift and much need relief for those burdened with the high cost of long distance phone calls that are often times, the only source of communication. 

Phone calls become more crucial as prisoners are moved from state to state, making visitation trips expensive and painstaking. As one Hawaiian inmate currently serving time in Arizona writes, “I am thousands of miles away from home…the amount of contact with my children and other family has been greatly limited due to high cost to my family and myself…this you could consider the result of being a captive customer.”

These captive customers are not just those behind bars, but also their families. These families are limited to the phone service selected by the state an inmate is held in, without access to competitive services. Hearing a voice can mean the world to a family, as the Johnson family writes,“ I am a single mother of 2 boys, and my father who is incarcerated is their only male figure in their life. I can’t afford to pay the high cost.”

When inmate wages are taken into consideration, phone costs shift from high to just plain unaffordable. “23 cents a minute adds up quickly, especially when I am paid 12 cents an hour at my job here. I spend a total of $50 a month to speak to my mother, son and siblings via phone and email,” writes one woman.

Six dollars for 15 minutes in Iowa may seem more reasonable, but not to an inmate who makes between $20 and $40 a month. “Over 4 years, I have simply stopped calling my friends and family. I know they could help by sending money, but it’s not fair to them to pay such high rates to hear our voices,” writes one Des Moines prisoner.

Incarcerated or not, it is not fair for anyone to be subjected to such high costs. As one California inmate phrased it, [prison phone companies] should be advised that a judge has already pronounced punishment and fine. It is not their place to allot additional punishment and fines, let alone, against a prisoner’s family and friends.

Capping these costs would ease the burden on families and help strengthen the ties to the communities they are returning to, decreasing the likelihood that they will return to prison. After hearing these stories from those truly affected by these practices, the FCC should exercise its authority to provide relief for these individuals and their families.

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