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

CAP INTERSTATE PRISON PHONE RATES

 

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 minute. 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 result.

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 consideration.

 

Sincerely,

 

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

ACLU

Rabbi Menachem Katz, The Aleph Institute*

David Keene, American Conservative Union*

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

NAACP

Galen Carey, National Association of Evangelicals*

National Council of La Raza

National Hispanic Media Coalition

National Urban League

New America Foundation, Open Technology Initiative

NOW

PolicyLink

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.

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