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Prison Phone Call Rates Still Hot-Button Issue

Reesy Floyd-Thompson, a self-described digital wonder woman, experienced the ignominy of a significant other being incarcerated.

The jailing of her husband also meant talking to him on the telephone would be limited — if not quite expensive.

“I used to maintain a side-hustle to take care of thee calls alone. My husband and I used to endure monthly bills as high as $500 just to stay connected,” said Floyd-Thompson, who now runs an organization called “Prisoner’s Wives, Girlfriends and Partners,” a support group for spouses and partners of those incarcerated.

Exorbitant telephone call rates have made it almost impossible for loved ones to keep in touch with family and friends behind bars. With rates as high as $20 per call in some areas, several lawmakers joined the Obama administration two years ago in convincing the Federal Communications Commission to cap those charges.

However, in June, a federal court struck down new regulations that cap the rates at 25 cents per minute. While acknowledging that the rates charged for in-state prison calls were exceedingly high, a three-judge panel for United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said the FCC exceeded its authority when it created rate caps.

The in-state calls have been reported as high as $10 per minute, while long-distance calls far exceed that.

“This actually undermines a key goal of prisons which is to foster rehabilitation to foster successful reentry,” said Dr. Melissa Hamilton, a senior lecturer of law and criminal justice at the University of Houston Law Center. “Charging much money for phone calls deters communications between prisoners and those who might best be able to keep them calm and focused while in prison, and who may be able to provide opportunities to prisoners upon release.

“These are friends, family, and religious connections,” Hamilton said. “What we know from decades of correctional research studies is that prosocial contacts and prosocial opportunities are important mechanisms for rehabilitation and reentry. To the extent that the programs reduce these interpersonal contacts, not only are prisoners worse off. It can be detrimental to family members themselves, particularly children.”

Having a strong social support network counts as an important tool in reducing recidivism, particularly for drug-related crimes, said Matt C. Pinsker, a former prosecutor and magistrate who’s an adjunct professor of criminal justice at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“I find the high costs of phone calls concerning,” Pinsker said. “Anything which limits one’s opportunity to be better connected with family is cause for concern. I have had numerous cases where clients, especially indigent ones, were unable to talk to loved ones because they had no money on their accounts.”

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn called the high rates a civil rights issue which prevents inmates from being able to connect with the nearly 3 million children in America who have at least one parent in prison.

“It’s the greatest form of regulatory injustice I have seen in my 18 years as a regulator in the communications space,” Clyburn said in a statement.

D.C. resident Ulandis Forte said staying in contact with his grandmother, Martha Wright, helped him survive his 18-year incarceration.

“The calls were everything. It was what I looked forward to all of the time,” he said. “My grandmother is a special woman, she was my support system and she gave me love.”

Wright often couldn’t afford to take the collect calls from prison and sometimes she’d just pick up the phone to hear Forte’s voice before declining the charges.

Wright would file a petition in 2003 with the FCC and then again in 2007. She began a class-action lawsuit with inmates and former inmates against private prison phone companies regarding the services and the charges.

Her efforts were backed by Congressional Black Caucus Members Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, and Eleanor Holmes Norton of D.C., both of whom noted that while African-Americans comprise of about 13 percent of the U.S. population, they also make up 35 percent of inmates.

Approximately 37 percent of the 2.2 million male inmates are black, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Justice report.

“The astronomical fees are predatory and are being perpetuated by the phone companies and prisons, creating a mini-monopoly,” Norton said.

The profits from the calls are sometimes shared with sheriff offices who say they use the money for security needs, she said.

“Frequently, these kinds of fees force many families to make difficult decisions on whether to forgo contact with their family or loved ones because the cost becomes prohibitive,” Fudge said.

This summer’s ruling by the FCC proved disappointing for many and it also fell in line with most Trump administration policies that hurt the poor and disenfranchised.

“Basically, after FCC Chairman Ajit Pai was appointed by the Trump administration, the FCC abandoned its defense of jurisdiction over intrastate prison phone rates,” said Alex Friedman, the managing editor of Prison Legal News, a project of the Human Rights Defense Center and an independent monthly magazine that reviews and analyzes prisoners’ rights, court rulings and criminal justice-related issues.

“Pai had opposed most if not all prison phone reforms while he served on the FCC during the Obama presidency,” Friedman said. “Following the DC Circuit ruling, prison phone rate caps remain on interstate calls, but intrastate calls are now completely unregulated on the federal level.”

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Stacy M. Brown

I’ve worked for the Daily News of Los Angeles, the L.A. Times, Gannet and the Times-Tribune and have contributed to the Pocono Record, the New York Post and the New York Times. Television news opportunities have included: NBC, MSNBC, Scarborough Country, the Abrams Report, Today, Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News, Imus in the Morning and Anderson Cooper 360. Radio programs like the Wendy Williams Experience, Tom Joyner Morning Show and the Howard Stern Show have also provided me the chance to share my views.

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