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FCC Answers Call to Examine Prison Phone Costs

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
January 3, 2013

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has already filled in one of its "to-do" items for 2013: filing a Notice of Intent to issue rules to reform prison telephone service contracts. Steven Renderos is a national organizer with the Media Action Grassroots Network. He says the FCC has heard about price gouging for 10 years. Costs vary from state to state. In Arkansas, a 15-minute local collect call averages around $5, while the same type of call - serviced by the same company - costs less than $1 in Rhode Island, he notes.

"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 for getting the FCC to act. That activism included a recent, well-reviewed film, "Middle of Nowhere," that focused on the tribulations of prisoners' families.

Prison managers say the systems are intricate, which is why the calls cost more. However, some states have prohibited contract kickbacks to prisons, which are often privately run, and in those states, Renderos says, rates have dropped.

Family contact with incarcerated loved ones is essential, Renderos adds.

"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."

While Arkansas' rate is higher than some states, it's not the highest. Renderos says that same call can cost family members up to $20 in some areas of the country.



Deborah Courson Smith/Deb Courson Smith, Public News Service - AR