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After almost a decade, FCC has yet to rule on high cost of prison phone calls

By Justin Moyer,

Almost a decade ago, a petition by the families of inmates tired of paying sky-high rates for prison telephone calls landed at the Federal Communications Commission.

Martha Wright-Reed of the District, an 86-year-old former nurse who’s blind, and other petitioners didn’t think it was right for their incarcerated sons and daughters to pay so much more than everyone else to keep in touch.

Phone companies that charge high rates say most of their revenue goes to governments in the form of commissions that help pay for their criminal justice systems.

Is this fair?

Close to 3,500 days later, the FCC hasn’t decided.

“They seem to be dragging their feet,” Wright-Reed said.

Wright-Reed’s quest is a familiar one in a country that isn’t sympathetic about prisoners’ rights, emphasizing punishment over rehabilitation for those who commit crimes, inmate advocates said.

“Inmate phone system charges are often very unfair,” Stephen J. Steurer, executive director of the Correctional Education Association, said in an e-mail.

A prison education advocate, Steurer said he has had to decline collect calls from a client at Jessup Correctional Institution in Maryland because of their price. “It would actually be easier for me to visit him at JCI since it is just a few miles from my office,” he said.

Neil Derek Grace, a spokesman for FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, said in an e-mail that “the FCC is working with all interested parties — including the families of inmates, prison pay phone providers, public interest groups, and the states — to address the question of rates for interstate phone calls by inmates and their families, and we are preparing next steps.”

The issue has a champion on the FCC board: Mignon L. Clyburn, a 2009 appointee of President Obama. But there still is no timetable for when the FCC must rule on what’s called the “Wright petition.”

“I thought they had dropped it and forgot about it,” Wright-Reed said.

Special or standard?

Why do phone calls from prison cost more than other phone calls? Securus, a Dallas-based company that offers phone service to 2,200 facilities in 44 states, cites the price of the technology required to monitor phone calls, as well as related research and development.

“Securus has many different kinds of features it can build into the call system to live-monitor or record,” said Stephanie Joyce, counsel for Securus.

Lee Petro, Wright-Reed’s attorney and pro bono counsel for the petitioners, disagrees, saying that the telephone equipment that companies use in jails is standard.

But what makes prison phone calls pricey is not the cost of such equipment. It’s the commissions that go to state and county governments.

“The proponents of slashing rates call them ‘kickbacks,’ ” said Joyce. “I feel that does a disservice to these government entities that are complying with state law or trying to fund overtaxed jails.”

The commissions are considerable. In some Virginia prisons, they’re 35 percent of the price of a phone call. In Maryland prisons where Securus operates, local calls from prisons cost 85 cents, intrastate calls cost $2.55 plus 30 cents per minute and interstate calls cost $2.70 plus 30 cents per minute. The commission? Up to 60 percent, which generated $5.2 million for Maryland in 2010. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, where many D.C. inmates are housed, charges less than many private prisons: 6 cents per minute for local calls and 23 cents per minute for long-distance calls made with debit cards.

In most states, said Steven Renderos of the Center for Media Justice, “these are pretty high commission rates . . . they have to pay back into county or state budget.”

Renderos calls commissions the “No. 1 leading cause for high phone-call rates.”

The FCC can’t ban commissions. But after Martha Wright et. al. v. Correction Corporations of America et. al. was filed in 2000, a federal district judge ruled that the agency would have to decide on a reasonable rate for prison phone calls. Since 2003, the request has gone unanswered.

Eight states have banned commissions and have seen rates drop. In Michigan, for example, rates fell from $3.99 plus 89 cents per minute to a flat rate of about 15 cents per minute after commissions were banned in 2008, according to data from Prison Legal News.

Where commissions exist, the cost gets passed to inmates, their attorneys and their families.

Grandmother’s experience

Martha Wright-Reed became the named plaintiff in the class-action protest over the cost of prison phone calls because she never gave up on her grandson, Ulandis Forte.

When Forte went to prison for manslaughter in 1994, she visited him once a week at the D.C. prison in Lorton, now closed. They spoke by phone about twice a week.

When Forte was transferred to an Arizona private prison in 1998 and the federal Bureau of Prisons in 2001, she visited him in distant places she can’t always remember, usually twice a year.

And she took Forte’s collect calls. From Lorton, a few calls a week cost Wright-Reed about $50 per month. When Forte left Lorton, the bills got higher: closer to $200 a month, for example, when he was in Arizona. Wright-Reed estimates that she spent almost $1,000 per year on phone calls limited to 15 minutes or less.

“You get tired of writing,” Wright-Reed said. “There’s nothing like hearing their voice.”

The only good news for her in the length of time it has taken the FCC to weigh in on the class-action suit is that her grandson was paroled in June.

After almost 19 years in prison, Forte lives in a halfway house on Eighth Street NW, working at a nearby construction site Monday through Friday, and stays with Wright-Reed on the weekends.

While Forte was locked up, he said, the phone was his lifeline — even if his grandmother couldn’t always accept his collect calls and couldn’t always afford to put money on his phone debit card.

He estimates that about 20 monthly phone calls of no more than 15 minutes each cost thousands of dollars over the years.

“Sometimes I’d call so she could hear my voice — hear that I’m alive and safe,” Forte said, drinking cocoa on a chilly October day before reporting to work at 6:45 a.m. “She couldn’t afford to pick up.”

‘Middle of Nowhere’

This fall, Clyburn helped arrange a screening of “Middle of Nowhere” at the FCC. It is a fictional film about a family who struggles when a father is sent to jail. “Middle of Nowhere” was produced by Participant Media, which also produced Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and promotes causes while promoting movies.

“We believe that a story well told can change the world,” said Chad Boettcher, Participant’s vice president of social action and advocacy. “We look for issues we call ‘tippable.’ Is there something that film can push to move the issue forward? I think we found it.”

“We have grandparents raising their children’s children [and] literally having to make a choice between medicine and staying in touch with their parent,” said Clyburn. The daughter of Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), she worked to eliminate commissions in South Carolina, her home state. “Studies show what these phone calls can mean for morale and recidivism rate if that individual is able to speak with their family members,” she said.

Although the FCC screening of “Middle of Nowhere” on Sept. 24 was closed to the news media, Wright-Reed and Forte attended and spoke to the audience.

“The most important thing I told them was what my grandma means to me,” Forte said. “I explained how hard it was for me to keep contact — that it hurts her not to be able to accept my calls.”

Clyburn declined to speculate on when the Wright petition would be decided, but she announced that the commission’s chairman circulated a “notice of proposed rulemaking” — a draft of a proposal the commission can vote on — at a protest outside the FCC on Nov. 15.

Renderos, of the Center for Media Justice, said that in March, the petition will celebrate its 10th anniversary. “We don’t want to see this go past the 10-year mark,” he said.

Wright-Reed said that she doesn’t expect any financial gain from the lawsuit.

“As far as I know, there’s no money,” she said. “I want to fix it so it’s easier for the boys to talk on the phone.”

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