Dialing for Justice: Score One Win Against Predatory Prison Phone Rates

A national board of regulators wants fair phone costs for inmates and their families. Will the FCC pick up?

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Matt Fleischer was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

Social justice advocates who feel incarcerated people and their families should be granted basic human rights had something to celebrate yesterday. An important step was taken in the effort to combat predatory phone rates charged to the families of prisoners.

After hearing evidence on Monday, the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC)—a group of state-level energy, telecommunications, water and transportation regulators from across the country—adopted a resolution asking the FCC to regulate the cost of prison phone calls at its annual meeting in Baltimore.

“It was important for the FCC to hear that from NARUC—the commission that controls intrastate calls,” Amalia Deloney, Associate Director of the Center for Media Justice, tells TakePart. The Center for Media Justice has been lobbying the FCC to intervene on the issue of prison phone rates.

MORE: ‘Middle of Nowhere’ Director: ‘If I Could, I Would Abolish Prisons.’

A non-binding resolution may not seem like a tidal shift of public policy, but the motion carries a lot of symbolic heft. The issue has been lingering on the desks of FCC commissioners since 2003—when Martha Wright, a grandmother tired of being gouged up to $18 for a five-minute call with her imprisoned grandson, petitioned the commission to make a ruling on what constitutes fair pricing for prison calls.

Currently, no national regulation governs the matter.

Last week, the state of New Mexico finalized new regulations governing prison telephone rates, imposing caps on rates and eliminating undue fees.

Unlike the court system, there is no timetable for the FCC to take action on an issue. When and if it chooses to address a petition is at its own discretion. Wright’s petition has stalled for nearly a decade.

As of late, however, movement has been discerned.

Last week, the state of New Mexico finalized new regulations governing prison telephone rates, imposing caps on rates and eliminating undue fees.

“It’s long past time this issue has been addressed,” says New Mexico Public Utilities Commissioner Jason Marks, who testified before NARUC on Monday. “We’ve been seeing some of the most economically vulernable families subject to these exorbitant rates. From their perspective, it’s an unregulated monopoly.”

New Mexico has been fighting the battle over prison phone rates since 2007, and Marks says that his state has made strides on the issue long before the formal rules were indoctrinated last week.

“Many New Mexico prisons have seen the light on this issue, and realized that in the bidding process, it is not better to treat this as a cash cow. Prisoners being able to freely communicate with their families is an integral part of rehabilitation and integration process.”

However, states like New Mexico are powerless to regulate interstate calls. That means the problem, even in states looking for reform, can’t truly be resolved without an FCC ruling. Marks says he’s been encouraged that FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn seems to have taken the matter seriously.

“Commissioner Clyburn at the FCC has gotten out in front of this,” Marks tells TakePart. “ From my perspective coming from a state commission, if you want something to happen, it can happen within half a year. With Commissioner Clyburn advocating, if one of her colleagues jumps on board, it will happen. From a technical perspective, there’s nothing unique about these proposed regulations. If the FCC wants to do this, and there’s a push, they can get it done.”

Thursday afternoon, a coalition of advocacy groups under the banner of Campaign for Prison Phone Justice will lead a rally outside FCC headquarters to give Clyburn’s colleagues that push.

“The rally is meant to lift up this issue,” says Deloney of the Center for Media Justice. “This problem is irrespective of geography, class and party. This is an issue that is not related to prisoners. The impact is most profoundly felt by family members, who are completely innocent. We want to make sure these families can tell their stories.”

It’s up to the FCC to listen.

If you have something encouraging to say to a kid who can’t afford to phone his incarcerated mother, leave it in COMMENTS.

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