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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 17, 2012

PHOENIX - "Middle of Nowhere," a movie playing in five cities and opening in seven more on Friday, is a fictional drama about prison life, but it has a very real true-life issue behind it. The filmmakers have joined forces with a movement to bring fairness to families of inmates who are burdened with the high costs of staying in touch by phone.

A wrenching story unfolds amid the hardships endured by those on the outside as they try to support loved ones behind bars. 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 recently got an advance screening of "Middle of Nowhere," an unprecedented event arranged by advocates who have been trying for more than a dozen years to get the FCC to step in and cap the cost of interstate calls from prison. Advocates say they're encouraged the commissioners may be finally starting to listen.

DuVernay was judged "best director" 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 12 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."

No Arizona showings have yet been announced. More information is online at takepart.com/MiddleOfNowhere.

Doug Ramsey, Public News Service - AZ