The Justice Department’s recent recommendation to end the use of private facilities for US citizens in federal prisons has been hailed as a victory by reformers, but the widespread privatization of everyday services in prison, like hygiene products, food, laundry and phone calls continues unchecked. Simple phone calls, something most of us take for granted — when made by an incarcerated person and often paid for by a family member — add up to a $1.2 billion dollar industry.
This summer, two states passed legislation that takes on the gross overcharging for prison phone calls. Illinois passed a bill that cuts in half the cost of phone calls from prison. In New Jersey, a bill caps rates and addresses international calls made by immigrant detainees. These states follow a decision last October by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate the entire prison phone industry.
Efforts to reform this industry have been met with much resistance. The FCC’s decision has been fought by the phone companies and law enforcement officials, who won a recent concession.
However, a nationwide network of grassroots organizations, lobbying groups, and activist attorneys has been successful because it’s given voice to those who are incarcerated and their families, who can best speak to the exploitation and dehumanization that is endemic to mass incarceration in the United States.
Progress and Pushback
On October 22, 2015, the FCC voted to overhaul the prison phone industry, the result of a decade-long struggle waged by the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice. This effort began in 2000 with a lawsuit filed by Martha Wright, who was tired of paying the expensive bills to talk to her grandson in prison.
In a historic decision, the FCC adopted rates capped at 11 cents a minute for calls from state and federal prisons, and tiered rates for county jails between 14 and 22 cents, depending on the size. They severely limited the number of additional charges that are often added to calls.
Immediately after the ruling, the two leading prison phone companies — Securus and Global Tel Link (GTL) — led the pushback. They were aided by the National Sheriffs’ Association and attorneys general from a handful of states, including Oklahoma, Kansas and Wisconsin. Together, they filed a barrage of legal motions to stay the decision. A stay was granted by the courts.
On August 4, 2016, the FCC made a major concession by releasing revised rates of 13 cents a minute for calls from prison, and 19 to 31 cents from jails. As Carrie Wilkinson responded in Prison Legal News, “the FCC made a strategic but difficult decision to increase the caps to cover phone-related costs allegedly incurred by correctional agencies.”
Although the FCC has made a substantial concession, corporations are still pushing back against the FCC’s modified rates. They have become dependent on the never-ending supply of profits from these calls. It remains to be seen whether the Court of Appeals will grant their objections, or allow the slightly increased rates to go into effect.
Meanwhile, several states have taken action to reduce the costs of prison phone calls. One of the first was Alabama, where as early as 2014 the Public Service Commission intervened to scale down prices over a two-year period in all jails and prisons. In early 2015, anticipating the FCC’s decision, Ohio renegotiated its contract to cut phone rates in prisons by 75 percent.
Food or Phone
In Illinois, a bill was passed this summer with bipartisan support — HB 6200 — that will cap all calls from Illinois prisons at seven cents a minute. When it takes effect January, 2018, what is currently billed as a $4 phone call will cost about two dollars.
Illinois has the highest rate of what are called “site commissions,” with $12 million collected every year from prison phone calls. These commissions, or what some call kickbacks, are paid back to the state by the provider, Securus, for the right to an exclusive contract. These commissions are often said to go to “inmate benefits,” but in Illinois, they cover basic expenses like medication, transportation and guard salaries.
While imposing drastic cutbacks to social service agencies in the state, Gov. Bruce Rauner has portrayed himself as a compassionate conservative on criminal justice issues. Toward this end, he has formed the Commission on Criminal Justice and Sentencing Reform, with the mission of reducing the prison population by 25 percent in 10 years.
HB 6200 was signed into law at a reentry center in North Lawndale, Chicago, as part of a package of five criminal justice reform bills signed that day by the governor. “We need to approach our criminal justice system with more compassion,” Rauner said in a press release. “I want those who did something wrong to face punishment, but we must make sure that the punishment fits the crime. We need to explore new avenues so that we’re balancing punishment with rehabilitation and not needlessly tearing families and lives apart.”
State Representative Carol Ammons (D-Urbana), the champion of HB 6200, attended the signing with 20-year-old Wandjell Harvey-Robinson, whose parents were incarcerated when she was in the third grade. When interviewed by NPR, Ammons told the story of Harvey-Robinson, whose family struggled to pay the phone bills to talk to her parents. “The choice was food or phone,” said Ammons.
Harvey-Robinson had travelled to Washington, D.C., last year to tell her story to the FCC. She testified in Springfield before two legislative committees to pass HB 6200. Back home, in Champaign, Illinois, she participates in Ripple Effect, a support group for families with a loved one who is incarcerated. “There are thousands of Illinois children whose lives will be dramatically improved by the actions today,” she said at the bill’s signing.
A Consistent Complaint
New Jersey was the second state in 2016 to pass legislation addressing the high cost of prison phone calls. The bill, S 1880, caps rates at 11 cents a minute for both prisons and jails in the state, and bans all commissions. Also among the reforms was capping the cost of international calls at 25 cents a minute. Truthout spoke with Karina Wilkinson of New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees (NJAID), which partnered with the New York University School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic and Latino Justice to pass the bill. The campaign, Wilkinson explained, grew out of speaking with immigrants held in county jails for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Exorbitant phone rates for international calls were a “consistent complaint.”
Even more expensive than regular collect calls, international calls can cost from $18 to $20 for a 15-minute conversation.
Immigrant detainees are “pretty vulnerable,” Wilkinson said, but a handful of those who had been released were willing to speak out. Among them was Pauline Ndzie, held for ICE at the Hudson County jail for five months, who stated in a press release, “My three children had to live without me while I was detained. I usually couldn’t afford to call them more than once a week. It isn’t fair to keep children from talking to their mother because of the high cost of phone calls.”
The coalition tried passing a bill last year that was pocket-vetoed by Governor Chris Christie, but with bipartisan support they passed it the second time around late this summer.
If these reform measures are an indication, larger efforts to end mass incarceration face great obstacles. Advocates say that lawsuits and policy research must be backed up by the stories of those incarcerated and their families.
Steven Renderos, organizing director at the Center for Media Justice, home of the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net), a member of the campaign, told Truthout, “It’s been the stories of impacted families like those of Martha Wright, Lillian Tillman, Bethany Fraser and others that have propelled change at the national and local level. Their stories of the sacrifices they have made to stay in touch with their loved ones on the inside have changed the hearts and minds of our public officials, and it is their right to connect that should matter more than the profit margins of greedy phone companies.”
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