2013-08-09 13:45:54

Reform Phone Rates for Inmates' Families

Pictured above: Mignon Clyburn, acting chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission.

After more than 10 years of advocacy, the Federal Communications Commission is finally going to take a stand on the predatory phone rates charged to the families of prisoners.

Today the FCC will vote on a proposal to reform these rates. The details of the order are not yet known, but the fact that this long-overdue vote is happening at all is a welcome sign of meaningful change in our disastrous criminal-justice system.

Nearly 3 million children in the United States have a parent in prison. An hourlong phone call for these children to speak with their parents can cost more than $60. To put this in perspective, it's cheaper to call Singapore from any residence in the U.S. than to speak to someone in a prison right here at home.

These predatory rates further dim the prospects of prisoners successfully re-entering society. By placing such a steep cost on maintaining relationships with friends and family, phone companies and prisons are complicit in exacerbating recidivism, undermining rehabilitation and damaging job and housing prospects for former inmates.

Prison phone calls do not have to cost this much; rates are not based on the actual cost of services. These calls are so expensive because phone companies give kickbacks of up to 60 percent to prisons for exclusive contracts and then pass this fee on to inmates' families.

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 and medicine.

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 long-distance prison phone rates satisfies both priorities.

It was more than a decade ago that Martha Wright, the grandmother of an inmate, first petitioned the FCC to end these predatory practices. Wright's grandson was imprisoned thousands of miles away from her Washington, D.C., home, and keeping in touch with him became a financial hardship.

Since then, the commission has made only baby steps to move the issue along. It was only this summer, when Commissioner Mignon Clyburn became the acting chair of the FCC, that any real movement was made to give relief to these families and reduce recidivism.

Clyburn has been a vocal advocate for these families, saying that "connecting husbands to wives, parents to children and grandparents to grandchildren should be a national priority." But she is only acting chairwoman, with a narrow window of opportunity to make progress on this issue.

Industry veteran Tom Wheeler's nomination for the post is pending in the Senate, and it's imperative that he take cues from Clyburn's tenure. FCC policies impact all of us, and Clyburn has shown what's possible when the commission uses its power to improve the lives and well-being of everyday families.

The civil and human rights community has every reason to believe that Wheeler shares these priorities. This vote isn't the final step in capping these predatory rates, and Wheeler can demonstrate his commitment, once he is confirmed by the Senate, by swiftly advancing this effort.

Today's vote is a welcome step for the millions of families that must choose between staying in touch with loved ones and putting food on the table. It's also a small, but important, policy change to reform our broken criminal-justice system.

Wade Henderson is the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 national civil and human rights groups.

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