We must disconnect predatory prison phone rates

Recently, Mignon Clyburn became the first woman to ever head the Federal Communications Commission when she was named acting chairwoman. While she may only hold this position for a limited time, she has a window of opportunity to make a lasting difference in the lives of millions of families across the country by pushing forward an issue that has been languishing for more than 10 years.
 
A decade ago, 87-year-old Martha Wright petitioned the FCC to end predatory prison phone practices. Inspired by her own financial hardship — trying to stay in touch with her incarcerated grandson thousands of miles away from her home in Washington, D.C. — Wright and brave family members across the country have fought this battle for far too long.
 
Wright knew her grandson had made a mistake, but she did not want to abandon him. More than a grandmother’s intuition, research also shows that prisoners who maintain family connections are much less likely to re-offend. Nearly 3 million children in the United States have a parent in prison. For Wright and these families, keeping in touch for one hour per week with their loved ones means paying as much as $250 a month on top of regular phone bills.
 
Calls made from prisons, which are most often paid for by inmates’ families, are so expensive because up to 60 percent of costs go toward commissions for corporations and prison agencies, according to Prison Legal News. Telecom companies pay for exclusive contracts at prisons and then pass this fee on to inmates’ families.
 

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Across the country, these high commission rates and kickbacks allow corporations to pocket $152 million a year off struggling families, some who even have to choose between talking to an incarcerated parent, child or loved one and paying for necessities like food or medicine. Today, it is still cheaper to call Singapore than to speak to someone in a U.S. prison.
 
Maintaining healthy relationships with family members and other close contacts is the most important factor in someone’s successful return to their community from prison. These bonds help inmates rehabilitate and rejoin society, lowering re-incarceration rates. According to corrections officials, phone access is essential for inmate morale and promotes positive motivation.
 
Prisoners’ friends and families often provide the only opportunity incarcerated individuals will have to re-connect with a job and a support network that can prevent them from returning to prison. We need more people connecting to those in prison, not fewer.
 
A sound moral compass dictates that we should not create policies that undermine family bonds. And sound public policy dictates that we should take steps to reduce recidivism and future crime. Capping the cost of prison phone rates satisfies both priorities, yet only recently has the FCC shown signs of moving toward acting on Wright’s petition.  
 
Last year, the agency began the process of proposing new rules to hold this profiteering industry accountable for their exorbitant fees and, in April, it finished collecting public comments. The FCC commissioners must now decide whether the financial burden families bear to keep in touch with incarcerated loved ones is reasonable in light of the unchecked business practices that make it possible.

Prison phone calls do not have to cost this much; rates are not based on the actual cost of phone services. While 85 percent of state prisons still receive commissions from telephone providers, the states that have banned kickbacks have seen rates drop by 30 to 80 percent, according to the Center for Media Justice.
 
Clyburn has been a vocal advocate around this issue, saying, that, “connecting husbands to wives, parents to children, and grandparents to grandchildren should be a national priority.” Clyburn and Chairman nominee Tom Wheeler need to prioritize the interests of families over padding corporate profits.  
 
The FCC has had long enough to fix this unfair situation; the agency must adopt final rules by the end of the year to cap interstate prison phone call rates and take up the long-overdue task of protecting a vulnerable population from abusive practices.


Henderson is president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.