Updated 5:37 p.m.
Civil rights and conservative groups have banded together to form an unlikely coalition to ask the Federal Communications Commission to end "exorbitant" fees that many prisons charge inmates to make phone calls.
It can cost 10 times more to call anyone from prison than it does to call Singapore from a cellphone, said Wade Henderson, president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, during a conference call with reporters this morning. A 15-minute collect call from prison typically costs $10 to $17 - rates that garnered $152 million in revenue for prisons in 2011. “These are predatory rates for a literally captive audience,” he said.
David Keene, former chairman of the American Conservative Union, agreed. “It’s a tax directly on the poorest people in our society,” he said. “It makes no sense to cut off or make it impossible for prisoners to communicate with their families.”
Coalition members stressed that phone contact helps prisoners maintain ties with their families, and that the most important factor in a successful rehabilitation is a strong, intact family.
"It's a fight for the right to call home," said Amalia Deloney, who noted that while letters are also a way to stay in touch, “It’s hard to tell a 4-year-old that the only way to stay in contact with mom or dad is through crayons and paper.”
The issue has languished before the FCC for a decade. Martha Wright and 19 other people with relatives in prison in 2000 filed a class action in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeking a ruling that the phone service contracts entered into by prisons were illegal. The case was remanded in 2001 to the FCC, which issued a notice of proposed rulemaking in 2003, said Lee Petro, of counsel at Drinker Biddle & Reath, who is representing Wright pro bono.
Four years went by without resolution, so the petitioners in 2007 suggested that the FCC set benchmark rates of 20 cents per minute for calls placed using a calling card, and 25 cents a minute for collect calls. Still, the FCC has not taken action. Petro said he believes the reason for the delay is simply “a lack of interest to resolve the matter” at the FCC.
He noted that FCC employees who had been working on the issue were reassigned to help with the national broadband plan, the first priority of Chairman Julius Genachowski. Once the broadband plan was in place, personnel were diverted to work on reforming the Universal Service Fund, also now accomplished. “That’s why we’re trying to push for it now,” Petro said. “There isn’t one subject everyone [at the FCC] is focused on.”
Among those backing prison phone rate reform are American Values president Gary Bauer; the American Civil Liberties Union, Free Press, Consumers Union, the NAACP, Galen Carey of the National Association of Evangelicals and the Rev. Lou Sheldon and Andrea Lafferty of the Traditional Values Coalition.
“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,” the groups wrote in letter sent to the FCC today. “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.”