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FCC Moves on Prison Phone Price Gouging

PHOTO: A scene from "Middle of Nowhere," a film by Ava DuVernay. It was shown to the FCC as part of a successful campaign to get the agency to examine price gouging in prison phone contracts. Photo courtesy African American Film Festival Releasing Movement.
PHOTO: A scene from "Middle of Nowhere," a film by Ava DuVernay. It was shown to the FCC as part of a successful campaign to get the agency to examine price gouging in prison phone contracts. Photo courtesy African American Film Festival Releasing Movement.
December 31, 2012

PARK CITY, Utah - A movie that took a top honor at last year's Sundance Film Festival in Park City has been credited with helping to convince the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to examine the high prices families pay to stay in touch by phone with loved ones behind bars. A 15-minute phone call made from prison can cost up to $20.

In announcing a Notice of Proposed Rule Making, the FCC has responded to an effort of more than 10 years to look into prison phone service contracts. Steven Renderos, a national organizer on the issue for the Media Action Grassroots Network, calls the step forward "great."

"The real victims of the high cost of these phone calls are the families that have to pay the phone bills. It's not the inmates themselves; it's the families that end up paying the phone bills."

Renderos and others credit stepped-up activism over the past year or so - including support from makers of the film "Middle of Nowhere" - about what prisoners' families go through. It premiered at Sundance in 2012, where Ava DuVernay got Best Director honors. It was also shown to FCC staff and commissioners this fall.

Family contact with incarcerated loved ones is essential, says Renderos - and it often has to be by telephone.

"The Federal Bureau of Prisons acknowledged themselves that phone calls play a very critical role in reducing recidivism. There's been countless studies done about the frequency and contact with families, and how that's necessary."

The FCC was responding to a petition filed years ago on behalf of Martha Wright, a grandmother of a former prison inmate. One of her attorneys, Lee Petro, credits the breakthrough to pressure from public interest groups, as well as the screening of "Middle of Nowhere."

"A comprehensive showing from all different angles - from the right, the conservative organizations, from the left - as well as a showing at the FCC of the movie really put the pressure on the FCC and the FCC staff to explain why there hasn't been action over the past 10 years."

Coming so close to year's end, Petro says the FCC move did not get as much publicity as it might have, but he calls it an important step, nonetheless. Now, activists have to convince the FCC to come up with rules capping the onerous phone rates.

Information about the film is available at www.middlenowhere.com.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - UT