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OC Inc. Spreads Word about Prison Phone Rates

Jul 11, 2011 | by Nation Inside Team

Issues surrounding phone service to prisoners and other detainees were highlighted at a June 24 workshop at the 2011 Allied Media Conference in Detroit.

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The United Church of Christ’s Office of Communication, Inc. helped organize the panel of speakers to highlight the exorbitant costs that are often charged to prisoners and/or their families when they try to keep in contact by phone during their incarceration.

The workshop was also designed to promote a new Campaign for Prison Phone Justice (www.phonejustice.org), organized by the advocacy group Working Narratives and supported by a coalition of groups, including OC Inc.
Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, highlighted the findings of a detailed study his publication had conducted of contracts between state contracting agencies and a handful of telephone service providers, concluding that in most cases contractors pay commissions to state agencies that can amount to an average of 42 percent of their revenues. The result is that in some states, a family may have to pay as much as $17 for a 15-minute collect call. In other cases, families must sign up for high-priced prepaid phone plans or are forced to pay additional processing or administrative fees. Only eight states have barred these kinds of commission payments. The publication’s study, with a state-by-state breakdown of the costs and vendors, can be reviewed here. The study was conducted with the help of a grant from the Funding Exchange.
Wright and Kay Perry of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE) agreed that the situation has improved since the 1990s. But advocates have been frustrated by the slow pace of change. OC Inc. has been seeking to get the Federal Communications Commission to address the issue by instituting a cap on the charges that could be imposed on prisoners and their families for interstate phone calls. So far, courts have refused to intervene when intra-state rates were reviewed and approved by state public utility commissions.
Silky Shah, field director of Detention Watch Network, said the situation was similar for persons who were awaiting deportation hearings in detention centers. She said a recent study by the Government Accountability Office found that none of the centers it audited had lived up to proposed standards that would ensure that detainees would be able to make free telephone calls to legal counsel, consulates or the courts,to check on the progress of their cases. Most of the centers, she said, are in the South, where legal service providers “are almost non-existent.” More on the GAO study is available here. Shaw said her organization viewed access to phone services as “an urgent reform,” even as it continued to press for an end to the whole detention process as it currently exists.
 Nick Szuberla of Working Narratives described the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, which is seeking to generate stories about the hardships created by these charges and generate messages to the FCC and other policy makers to address the problem. More information, including a sign-up for email alerts, is available here.
Finally, Rev. Edward T. Haggins, an attorney and founder of the Matthew Prison Fellowship in Cleveland, Ohio, shared his first-hand experience with working to connect prisoners with their families by phone. “People who love these inmates are doing time, too,” he noted. Inmates, he observed, are increasingly being charged for the cost of their soap, toiletries and toilet paper and in Ohio, prisoners will soon be charged $1 a month to cover the cost of electricity for televisions and radios.
But Haggins said, “When these men have something to do, and someone who cares about them, they’re not likely to be fighting…and not likely to come back.”
Several panelists noted that studies have shown that prisoners who stay in touch with their families are less likely to return to prison once they are released.
Perry noted that millions are now being spent on various kinds of re-entry services. “A lot of research shows that people who have a social support network when they leave prison are going to do better. … At the same time, we have this high phone call cost destroying the very networks we need.” One way to improve the re-entry process, she said, “relatively cheaply, is through phone calls.”
Participating in the workshop were Cheryl Leanza, OC Inc.’s policy director; Sara Fitzgerald and Earl Williams, members of the OC Inc. board of directors; Rev. Jim Eaton, pastor of First Congregational Church in Owosso, MI; Lisa Cooper, team leader for communications and membership at Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ in Lansing, MI; and Rev. Terry and Sinclair Gallagher, social justice leaders from the Detroit Association of the Michigan Conference of the United Church of Christ. OC Inc.’s participation was supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation.
by Hannah Miller
re-printed from: http://www.uccmediajustice.org/o/6587/p/salsa/web/blog/public/entries?blog_entry_KEY=1704
Photos by Rev. Jim Eaton.
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