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Groups to FCC: Hang Up on High Prison Phone Rates

November 15, 2012

WASHINGTON - Phone calls from prison to an inmate's home can cost up to 24 times a normal call. After more than 10 years of trying to get the government - specifically the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) - to do something about it, advocates are stepping up the pressure. Petitions with 40,000-plus signatures are urging action on the issue.

A rally at the FCC office today features families of prisoners, along with prison chaplains and advocates such as Keith DiBlasio. A former inmate himself, DiBlasio has formed a conservative prison rights organization called AdvoCare, Inc. He assails the high rates that result when phone company contracts involve commissions paid to local or state government.

"I come from a fiscally conservative background, so I look at this as being an unlawful, unauthorized tax."

In some states, he says, the rates can range from a $7 local call to a 15-minute, long-distance call costing more than $30. That works a hardship on many families who are in the worst position to bear it, he adds: those with a loved one locked up. As of Nov. 14, the inmate population in New Mexico was 6,672.

DiBlasio says studies show maintaining strong family ties plays a key role in keeping recidivism down.

"When we're talking about keeping people connected and getting them on the right path to come out better than how they went in, there's an important issue of keeping families connected with the re-entry."

Amalia Deloney, associate director of the Center for Media Justice, says advocates have 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. Deloney says they are getting closer to closure.

"We definitely are gaining traction, both in terms of attention and also strategy - we're just sort of closing all the loopholes. It's pretty clear that everybody is saying the same thing: The time is now. It's time for the FCC to act."

According to the Center for Media Justice, more than 2.7 million children in the U.S. have a parent in prison, and phone calls are important in providing comfort and a sense of normalcy.

The rally is scheduled for 11:15 a.m. at 445 12th St. SW, Washington, D.C.

Renee Blake, Public News Service - NM