“I understand the need for security, but there is no need for high (phone) rates to maintain that security.” – Charlie, prisoner in Iowa.
Midnight on Monday April 22nd marked the end of the reply comment period on the FCC’s proceeding on prison phones. At the close of the reply comments period, 117 unique comments had been filed at the FCC. An overwhelming majority of comments were in support of lowering prison phone rates while only 18 comments filed mostly by prison telephone companies and state Sheriffs associations cautioned the FCC against regulation.
The Campaign for Prison Phone Justice had the distinct honor to file comments with Mrs. Martha Wright, CURE National and the DC Prisoners Project. In addition campaign partners, the Human Rights Defense Center (Prison Legal News) & the Center for Media Justice (as part of a collaborative of Public Interest groups) filed their own reply comments. In summary all reply comments call on the FCC to lower prison phone rates and to do so as soon as possible.
Prisoners Have A Voice
Among the supporters, 64 comments were letters written by prisoners from across the country. The letters detailed what it’s really like to use a prison telephone, which in many cases conflicts with what the telephone companies are saying. Companies like Global Tel Link have commented that dropped calls are rare and that in most cases dropped calls occur when prisoners are trying to use three-way calling. James, a prisoner at the Maryland Correctional Training Facility, wrote a letter detailing how often he experiences dropped call:
“Whenever I call my home phone (which happens to be a landline) the calls last for approximately two minutes and without warning disconnects.”
All prisoners urged the FCC to move this proceeding forward, as Charles a prisoners at Iowa State Penitentiary summarized:
“I thank you for considering this matter and hope you can help the millions of us who suffer from excessive rates. I would like to request you consider our thoughts (prisoners here) on this matter when you decide how to lower phone rates.”
Legislative Champions Speak Out
Adding to the chorus of supporters were state and federal elected officials calling on the FCC to lower phone rates. In Congress, the Congressional Black Caucus submitted comments expressing concern over high phone rates and its impact to communities of color. “The CBC is deeply troubled by the disproportionate and malignant impacts that exorbitant inmate telephone rates have on African American and Hispanic families and communities. Over 60% of incarcerated prisoners are African American or Hispanic.”
The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, an organization that represents the “collective interest of state utility commissioners” (in other words, the states’ equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission) expressed support of the FCC lowering rates as soon as possible. They also noted that interstate rates, which are the most expensive prison phone calls to make, impact families the most since they have no other option “but to pay” to stay in touch with their loved one.
State Advocates Support Reform
A few state advocates chimed in with reply comments to the FCC. The National Association of State Consumer Advocates (NASUCA) filed comments urging adoption of a policy that leads to a “just, reasonable and equitable structure for Inmate Telephone Calls.”
Members of the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, the Community Justice Project (CJP) of Minnesota and the New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees shared qualitative and quantitative data to support FCC efforts to reform prison call rates. The CJP submitted a report of a listening session conducted by Dr. Artika Tyner, with formerly incarcerated individuals to understand the extent of the problem with prison telephone calls. Participants detailed how critical phone calls were to their everyday health. As one respondent said, “hearing that voice that says they love you is your lifeline.”
New Jersey’s comments focused on the lack of competition in the prison telephone market largely due to the exclusive contracts between prisons and telephone companies and the commissions that these companies are required to pay to state and local agencies. In New Jersey this leads to rates as high as $.89/minute or $15 for a 15 minute phone call, while in their neighbor state New York, that same call would cost under a dollar. They recommend the FCC adopt rules that promote more communications between prisoners and their families.
A loud chorus of voices from diverse background and across the political spectrum have called on the FCC to lower prison telephone rates. The data and stories that we and our allies have submitted provide a persuasive argument for lowering prison telephone rates. With the comment period closed, the matter is back in the hands of the Federal Communications Commission. In the coming months, the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice will continue to direct our pressure at the FCC. Find out how you can get involved by joining our next campaign phone call on Thursday May 2nd at 4pm EST/ 1pm PST.