Civil rights groups push prison call reform

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“Most Americans don’t realize that it’s about 10 times more expensive to call anyone from a prison than to call Singapore from your office desk,” said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which is made up of more than 200 national groups.

The FCC is currently considering an order that would prevent phone companies from charging prisoners and their families such high rates, and is scheduled to vote on the measure on Friday.

Activists have been pushing the commission to take a stand for more than a decade, since a lawsuit from a grandmother struggling to keep in touch with her incarcerated grandson was referred to the FCC in 2001.

The extra charges, they say, make it harder for prisoners and their families to integrate into society.

“We know that success and addressing issues of recidivism are deeply tied to communications that can be maintained to those people in prison, their families and outside friends and representatives,” said Hilary Shelton, the NAACP’s Washington bureau chief. “But we also now that, as we’ve spoken to even criminal defense lawyers, that these very exploitative prison rates from these telephone companies that are exploiting these people make it quite difficult for them to maintain contact with their legal counsel, creating all kinds of problems with their representation.”

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican, has indicated he will vote against the proposal because it could make it harder for some inmates to access calling services, pose public safety concerns and be difficult to implement.

The higher charges are the result of contracts phone companies sign with states and local governments and vary widely between states.

Phone companies have said that the charges are necessary to pay for security measures and other costs.