Do You Hear Us Now? The Rally for Prisoners’ Families Moves on Washington

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn joins a D.C. demonstration pushing the FCC to crack down on predatory prison phone rates.

washington dc rally against predatory phone rates

The only possible explanation for a phone call into a U.S. prison costing more than a call to Malaysia is exploitative greed. That greed can be stopped. (Photo: Courtesy Center for Media Justice)

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

The effort to end predatory phone rates for incarcerated people and their families got a huge boost late last week. More than 150 people gathered outside the steps of the Federal Communication Commission’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., last Thursday, to demand the commissioners take action on the Wright Petition—which would set reasonable thresholds for prison phone rates.

Protests and gatherings are fairly commonplace in D.C. A 150-person event could easily be held without turning any heads. This one, however, was different. Joining the protesters was FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn herself, who vowed to take action on the issue—after it had been allowed to languish on the FCC’s to-do list for more than 10 years.

“I have been working with Chairman Genachowski, my fellow Commissioners, and our wonderful staff, to grant the Wright Petition, and issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that will lead to lower interstate long distance rates from correctional facilities,” she told the gathered crowd, much to its delight.

MORE: Will ‘Middle of Nowhere’ Convince the FCC to Do the Wright Thing on Prison Phone Rates?

Social justice advocates in attendance at the rally, including members of the social action team from Participant Media’s film Middle of Nowhere—which was screened for the FCC last month in a special hearing—had been making a hard push for FCC action on the Wright Petition for several months. Prior to the rally, advocates delivered a petitition to the FCC with more than 40,000 signatures calling for action.

For the first time in a long time, millions of families of the incarcerated across America can look forward to a day when they don’t have to choose between heating their house in the winter, or keeping in touch with their imprisoned loved ones.

Their efforts picked up movement early last week, when 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.

NARUC Commissioner Anne Boyle tells TakePart that Clyburn’s advocacy on the issue is “a giant step forward.”

“The time was way passed. This had been languishing for 10 years. I have a lot of opinions about the prison system. I object to our system of putting people in jail at extraordinary cost for minor problems. That being said, the biggest thing in my mind is, if you’re incarcerated for a prolonged period of time, why do you want to get out? You want to get out because you want to get back with your family. Staying connected with your family enhances your urgency to get out of jail and never come back. This is about rehabilitation.”

Despite Commissioner Clyburn’s and Chairman Genachowski’s vows to get the issue rolling, change won’t happen overnight.

The FCC as a whole needs to adopt a notice of proposed rulemaking. A public comment period will inevitably follow. For the first time in a long time, however, it appears as if the millions of families of the incarcerated across America can look forward to a day when they don’t have to choose between heating their house in the winter, or keeping in touch with their imprisoned loved ones.

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