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Film Fights Prison Phone Price-Gouging

PHOTO: Derek (Omari Hardwick) is visited in prison by his wife Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) in “Middle of Nowhere.”  Courtesy African American Film Festival Releasing Movement
PHOTO: Derek (Omari Hardwick) is visited in prison by his wife Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) in “Middle of Nowhere.” Courtesy African American Film Festival Releasing Movement
October 12, 2012

NEW YORK - In the new movie Middle of Nowhere, a wrenching story unfolds amid the hardships endured by those outside as they try to support loved ones behind bars. One such burden is the cost of phone calls, jacked up by prison telephone service contracts. The film's director, Ava DuVernay, says those costs are the result of monopolies that benefit phone companies and state governments.

"To further victimize folks with these exorbitant phone rates that have so many ripple effects for the community is just not right."

Members of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently saw an advance screening of the film, arranged by advocates who have been trying for more than 12 years to get the FCC to step in and cap the cost of interstate calls from prison. They say they are encouraged that the commissioners may be finally starting to listen.

DuVernay was awarded 'best director' honors at the Sundance Film Festival. She says her film addresses the isolation of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in America, nearly 40 percent of them black and nearly 20 percent Latino.

"These are human beings that shouldn't be deprived of connection and ultimately, the connection with their family - definitely it's been proven and studied - increases their chances of successful re-entry when they get out."

Lee Petro is a Washington lawyer who has been working for a dozen years on behalf of Martha Wright, a grandmother of a former prison inmate, who is petitioning the FCC to reform prison phone costs. He says the screening of the film for FCC staffers, arranged by Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, was unprecedented and helpful.

"A movie can do a much better job of telling the tale than anything I can do in a set of comments filed with the FCC."

The groups that make up the Media Action Grassroots Network say Middle of Nowhere may be helping them finally get somewhere on the issue of unfair prison telephone service contracts.

More information on the campaign to reform prison phone costs can be found at http://www.takepart.com/MiddleOfNowhere

Mark Scheerer, Public News Service - NY