At long last, families of the incarcerated in America can look forward to the day when they won’t be gouged for trying to stay in touch with loved ones behind prison walls.
Shortly before the New Year, on December 28, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the issue of exorbitant prison phone rates—the first time in more than a decade the issue has seen political traction of this significance.
“With 700,000 individuals released every year from these institutions, it is crucial that we do whatever we can to strengthen family ties before these individuals return home,” FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn—who has proved herself a crucial ally of advocates on the issue–said in a release. “One sure way to realize this is through the provisioning of affordable phone service. The overall costs of not doing so are too great, for those who re-offend place a substantially higher economic burden on taxpayers than any lost proceeds that would result from lower prison phone rates.”
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski echoed Clyburn’s enthusiasm. “I’m pleased that we’re moving forward with today’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on interstate prison phone rules and rates…which affects the families of inmates, prisoner rehabilitation, and prison security.”
Activists pushed the FCC hard in 2012 to take action on prison phones rates. The issue has been stalled with the body since 2002, when a federal judge overseeing a lawsuit by Martha Wright against Corrections Corporation of America ruled that the judiciary was incapable of determining what constitutes a “fair” phone rate without FCC guidance.
“The partnership we had with Middle of Nowhere and meeting with Martha Wright, it was a powerful turning point. It’s why we are where we are now.”
The FCC, however, never took up the call for action until activists with the Center for Media Justice and other organizations lobbied for the body to meet with those like Martha Wright affected by the issue.
In 2012, the FCC finally agreed, after taking the unprecedented step of screening Middle of Nowhere—a feature film written and directed by Ava DuVernay about a woman’s struggle to maintain her relationship with her incarcerated husband—to familiarize themselves with the issue.
“The partnership we had with Middle of Nowhere and meeting with Martha Wright, it was a powerful turning point,” Steven Renderos, National Organizer with the Center for Media for Justice, tells TakePart. “It’s why we are where we are now.
“Now it’s about determining what constitutes fair pricing. That’s going to take more public input.”
Thankfully, says Renderos, despite lobbying by the prison phone industry, the national tide has turned in favor of significant reform.
“The FCC’s action has other states taking up the issue on the local level. Louisiana recently lowered rates in their state [institutions]. Nebraska lowered rates in county jails. A former county sheriff in Florida has come out wanting lower rates. What we’re seeing is that the prison telephone industry is alone in its efforts.”
Still, achieving meaningful reform won’t be easy. Despite the FCC’s apparent willingness to take up the issue, constant pressure will be needed to convince it to follow through. As of the December notice, a 60-day public comment period is now in effect. After that, the FCC is allotted another 30-day period to reply to those comments. Then, a draft of proposed rules can finally be commissioned. That process, however, can take as long as the FCC likes.
Renderos, however, is hopeful that meaningful reform will soon be at hand. “At a time when we can’t seem to agree on anything as a nation, this is one issue the entire country seems to agree on.”
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Middle of Nowhere was acquired by AaFFRM (African American Film Festival Releasing Movement) and TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, prior to its nationwide theatrical release in October 2012.
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Matthew Fleischer is a former LA Weekly staff writer and an award-winning social justice reporter in Los Angeles. Email Matt