Jail Break? FCC Moves on Prison Phone Price Gouging
PORTLAND, Ore. - In a move at the very end of the year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has taken a step toward examining 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 family members up to $20. By announcing a Notice of Proposed Rule Making, the FCC has finally responded to an effort of more than 10 years urging the agency to look into prison telephone service contracts.
Steven Renderos, a national organizer around 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 the makers of a recent, well-reviewed film, Middle of Nowhere, which shed some light on the tribulations of prisoners' families. Last fall, it was shown in a special Washington, D.C., screening for FCC staff and commissioners.
Family contact with incarcerated loved ones is essential, Renderos says, 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 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 - from the right, from 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 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, which received Best Director honors at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, is available at www.middlenowhere.com.