By Steven Renderos.
“Inmates could afford to make calls if they quit smoking.” –Commissioner Clyde Holloway of Louisiana.
Recently at the Strong Families Safe Communities rally hosted by the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, the Federal Communications Commission announced they would be moving forward on a further notice of proposed rulemaking on the exorbitant costs of prison phone calls, also known as the Wright Petition. This procedure at the FCC marks the first step needed to regulate interstate phone calls from prison and gives us hope that soon enough families won’t have to pay so much to stay in touch with loved ones who are incarcerated in other states.
In the meantime some states are not waiting for the FCC to act on their own. Right now there are eight states that have reformed their prison phone calls rates including: California, New York, Nebraska, New Mexico, Missouri, Michigan, Rhode Island and South Carolina.
In Louisiana and Massachusetts prison phone advocates are currently working to reduce local and long distance calls made in the same state.
Interstate phone calls, are only half the battle in the exorbitant rates families of prisoners have to pay. In most states, making a local phone call can be just as pricey. In Louisiana, families are charged a $2.15 fee to simply connect the call and $.19/min after that. It’s approximately 15 times higher than what an ordinary call cost on the outside. Chairman Foster Campbell of the Louisiana Public Service Commission is proposing a reduction to the rates of prison phone calls. In a November 15th meeting, families of prisoners and ministers testified during a PSC hearing on the impact of having to pay so much to stay in touch. Espinola Quinn, whose husband is incarcerated testified at the hearing.
“My children have not spoken to their father in two months now because I can’t afford to put money into that account,” said Quinn, according to an article in the Town Talk.
The measure in front of the Louisiana PSC stalled with 2 votes in favor of reducing the rates, 2 against and one abstention. The measure will come up again for a vote in December.
Next March, Global Tel*Link’s contract with the Department of Corrections in Massachusetts will expire. The Department of Corrections has put its contract for prison phone calls out to bid which means any telephone company can submit a bid to be the exclusive telephone provider for prisons in the state of Massachusetts.
Prisoners’ Legal Services in Boston is using this procedure as an opportunity to renegotiate the rates for phone calls in state prisons. Prisoners and families filed a complaint to the Department of Telecommunications and Cable asking them to step in and regulate the call rates.
In July, the DTC held a public hearing on the issue where Prisoners Legal Services delivered a petition with 375 signatures and over 250 letters for organizations in support of lowering the cost of the phone call rates. In response, the Department of Corrections recently noted that they will take “all complaints and issues into consideration as we begin the search for a new vendor.”
The Department of Corrections has yet to decide on a new prison telephone provider.
On September 25th the Public Regulatory Commission in New Mexico recently passed a resolution urging the FCC to take up the Wright Petition immediately. The resolution was carried with bi-partisan support and came as a result of the hard work of our partners at Media Literacy Project.
Efforts are also underway by social and media justice advocates in New Jersey and Minnesota to address the phone call rates at both the county and state level. If you want to work on lowering the cost of phone calls from prisons in your state, join the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice by visiting our website www.phonejustice.org.
By Steven Renderos, National Organizer at the Center for Media Justice and the Media Action Grassroots Network.