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Jail Break? FCC Moves on Prison Phone Call Gouging

PHOTO: A scene from "Middle of Nowhere," a film by Ava DuVernay which 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 which 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

HARTFORD, Conn. - In a move announced at the very end of the year, the FCC has taken a step toward examining the high prices families pay to stay in touch by phone with loved ones behind bars. In announcing a Notice of Proposed Rule Making, the Commission has finally responded to an effort of more than ten years to look into prison telephone service contracts.

Steven Renderos, a national organizer around the issue, says the step forward is "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."

He says telephone contact is part of the family and community support that fights recidivism. He and others credit stepped-up activism over the past year or so, which included support from the makers of a recent well-reviewed theatrical film, "Middle of Nowhere," which dealt with the tribulations of prisoners' families. It was shown last fall in a special Washington screening for FCC staff and commissioners.

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

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

Renderos says family contact with incarcerated loved ones is essential.

"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 of contact with families, and how that's necessary."

Petro says the FCC's action, on the second-to-last working day of the year, came not a moment too soon.

"It's not going to hit the press like it would if it was before Christmas but, quite honestly, we'll take what we can get. And you know, it just gets the ball rolling."

Advocates say phone calls made from prisons can cost family members up to $20 for just 15 minutes. Now they will have to convince the FCC to come up with rules capping the onerous rates.

Mark Scheerer, Public News Service - CT