Prison Reform Advocates Speak Up for the Voiceless

Prisoners' families hail a change in interstate phone rates, but the fight for prisoners' rights is just beginning

A prison telephone.
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Advocates for inmates and their families say the FCC's decision to lower the cost of some phone calls from prison is an important first step toward reform.
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Bethany Fraser is a 36-year-old mother of two who lives in Gaithersburg, Maryland. She became an advocate for reforming the prison phone industry two and a half years ago, when her husband began serving a 10-year sentence for a drunk-driving-related death. "We downsized and downsized," says Fraser, who was forced to relocate her family three times in order to afford regular communication. The bill for weekly, half-hour calls with her husband eclipsed her spending on groceries and electricity combined – all the more challenging given that her household income had already been cut in half by his absence. "Just hearing his voice is critical for my kids to know that [they] do have a dad, he was a very involved father, and he wants to be as involved as he can be now," she tells Rolling Stone.

Earlier this month, Fraser traveled to Washington, D.C. to testify at a Federal Communications Commission hearing on the soaring costs of placing interstate phone calls from prisons, jails and immigration detention facilities. "Choosing between essential needs and keeping kids connected to their parents is a choice no family should have to make," she told the commission.

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In a ruling hailed as a major victory for inmates' families and their advocates, the FCC voted to set nationwide caps on interstate phone rates at 21 cents per minute for debit or prepaid cards, and 25 cents per minute for collect calls. These reforms will dramatically lower the cost of a 15-minute conversation to $3.15 or $3.75 – down from as much as $17 in some states, due to inflated rates as high as 90 cents per minute, further increased by a multitude of extra fees. "Rates and other charges to and from these facilities will be tied to the actual costs of providing inmate-calling service," explained Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, describing a shift away from the price-gouging practices that have defined the industry.

The new rules are a long-overdue response to a 2003 petition filed by a Washington, D.C. grandmother and retired nurse, Martha Wright, who sought to challenge the tremendous costs incurred by her efforts to stay in touch with her incarcerated grandson, Ulandis Forte. Unable to visit him regularly – Wright is blind and uses a wheelchair, and Forte was transferred between prisons in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, New Mexico and Arizona – Wright filed suit, and eventually became the namesake for a petition that garnered 40,000 signatures in support of reform.

Advocates stress that the prohibitive costs of calling home have impacted not only the nation's 2.2 million prisoners – for whom contact with loved ones has consistently been shown to reduce recidivism – but also the 2.7 million children who have an incarcerated parent, for whom estrangement can be as traumatic as parental loss. Additionally, unaffordable phone rates hinder access to legal representation and tax the ability of immigrants to fight their deportation cases.

Nevertheless, due to the vested interest of those that profited from exorbitant rates – state prison systems and the phone companies that serve them – the fight for reform dragged on for a decade. The Prison Policy Initiative describes a "state-sanctioned monopolistic control" wielded by prison phone companies, whereby these companies would bid for exclusive contracts with states, which signed based on those proposals that offered the highest "commission" – or revenue share paid back to correctional facilities. 42 states earned profit via these kickbacks before the FCC banned the practice this month, sometimes as much as 60 percent of the total call revenue generated. This system drove the cost of calls from prison skyward, in what was essentially a regressive tax on communities experiencing high rates of incarceration – disproportionately low-income communities and communities of color. 

According to data collected by Prison Legal News, which has been reporting on the phone industry for over 20 years, correctional facilities in 42 states last year received $103.9 million in kickbacks from phone companies. The money was used to fund staff salaries and prison programming – the kind of operating costs that for most public services would be borne by all taxpayers, not just those families for whom they are relevant. Of course, that's nothing compared to the $1.2 billion prison phone market itself, 80 percent of which is dominated by just two companies, Global Tel*Link Corp. and Securus Technologies Inc., both backed by private equity firms. "Finally, after 10 years," says Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News, "the FCC has decided to give that constituency which has no political voice relief."

But Friedmann says he's only celebrating a first step towards comprehensive change. "Rather than being the end of a very lengthy decade-long campaign," he says, "it's the beginning of a longer struggle to ensure additional reforms of the prison phone industry." He expects the phone companies to file a legal challenge, and is concerned that the language of the FCC's order – still unreleased – won't be strong enough to protect against the transfer of profits from rates to extra fees, comparing the situation to a balloon: "You know, you squeeze on one end, it'll just puff up on the other end."

What's more, the FCC's reforms only cap rates for calls between states, which despite being more costly, apply to fewer families than calls within states. Fraser, who has emerged as a staunch advocate for the families of prisoners across the country, must continue her own long wait for relief – she lives in Maryland, where her husband is incarcerated. The FCC has initiated a request for comment on intrastate calls, but for now, they can still cost up to $11 for 15-minutes on the phone, according to data from May provided by Prison Legal News.

Responding to the FCC's decision, a Colorlines.com article attributed the successful campaign for reform to advocacy groups' focus on families. "Organizing around prison issues is a very difficult thing because they're not relatable issues," Steven Renderos, an advocate with the Center for Media Justice, told the website. "People aren't sympathetic to prisoners." The problem of prison phone rates sits at the nexus of two larger structural barriers to rehabilitation: the siphoning off of funding from those already vulnerable, and the stifling of inmates' freedom of expression. In an underreported cycle, prisoners in many states are charged for court costs, probation supervision, and jail stays – providing budgetary support for cash-strapped states, but saddling the prisoners with impossible debt upon release. And although thousands have participated in California's hunger strikes over the past two years – risking their health when other forms of dissent have proved futile – meaningful changes to solitary confinement practices still seem beyond reach. Winning the campaign over interstate prison phone rates is a big step, but for reform advocates, there's still much more work to do.