When Martha Wright’s grandson Ulandis Forte was convicted of murder in his native Washington, D.C., Martha vowed that, despite his transgression, she was going to do everything in her power to keep in touch with him and steer him on a path to redemption.
Blind and living on a small pension, Wright spoke to her grandson multiple times per week over the phone, and they exchanged letters whenever possible.
Then, suddenly, things changed.
After his conviction, Forte was sent—as all D.C. felons were at the time—to a municipal correctional facility one hour outside of the city in Lorton, Virginia: “A notorious hellhole” according to Deborah Golden, staff attorney for the D.C. Prisoners’ Project and a member of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
The Lorton facility was so troubled in the late’90s that prison officials began filtering inmates into federal penitentiaries across the country. Lorton was eventually closed.
Forte was among those inmates transferred to a series of facilities run by Corrections Corporation of America. First he went to New Mexico, then Arizona, then Ohio. The distance made visitation impossible for his grandmother, Martha Wright. Additionally, it only took one phone bill for Wright to realize that, not only could she not visit her grandson, she could barely afford to speak with him.
“It’s too late to make it better for them. But it can make it better for the people who come after them.”
Through CCA’s privatized phone system, a five-minute call with her grandson could wind up costing upward of $18.
“She had to scrimp and save to take his calls twice a week,” says Golden of the D.C. Prisoners’ Project. “She had to pick between medication and talking to him. Or her heat and talking to him. Or food. She was extraordinarily committed to being there for him.”
In 2000, Wright and several others fed up with being gouged on exorbitant private prison phone rates sued Corrections Corporation of America in federal court. The case, however, stalled when the judge claimed to lack the authority to determine what constituted gouging.
“The judge ruled she couldn’t rule until the FCC made a decision about what qualifies as fair phone rates,” Golden tells TakePart. The D.C. Prisoners’ Project is representing Wright in her lawsuit. “However, the FCC doesn’t have any timeline. You can petition them for a ruling, but there is nothing you can do to force them to act upon those petitions. Nothing has happened [in the Wright case] for 10 years.”
This coming Monday, that could change.
The FCC has agreed to hold an ex-parte hearing to consider the impact of high phone rates on the families of imprisoned individuals.
Along with live testimony from Wright and others with relatives inside prison walls, the FCC officials will view Middle of Nowhere, a feature film written and directed by Ava DuVernay about a woman’s struggle to maintain her relationship with her incarcerated husband.
“To see an artistic representation of what it means to be cut off from your loved ones is very unprecedented,” says Golden. “We are very hopeful this will spur action.”
There is no guarantee the hearing will compel the FCC to take action. Nonetheless, the meeting is a sign of hope for relatives of the incarcerated, trying to keep their families together.
According to Golden, Martha Wright and her grandson Ulandis Forte are thrilled that their long legal battle may finally approach resolution.
“Both of them knew this case was ongoing, but they thought it no longer had a chance,” says Golden. “Ulandis is in a halfway house now. He’s almost done with his sentence. So this case no longer directly affects them. But when we called them last week to let them know the FCC wanted to hear from both of them, they were really excited. It’s too late to make it better for them. But it can make it better for the people who come after them.”
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Middle of Nowhere was acquired by AaFFRM (the African American Film Festival Releasing Movement) and TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, and is due in theaters nationwide October 12, 2012.