We were a small group, but our mood was electric and connected to the mood of groups across the country witnessing the Federal Communications Commission’s vote to limit interstate prison phone rates. The vote was a long time coming, after a ten-plus year campaign to bring fairness to a structure that worked against the intentions of the criminal justice system and the well-being of families and children across the country.
We were at Main Street Project, gathered together to watch the live stream of the FCC meeting on Friday. Organizing Apprenticeship Project is a partner of the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net, a project of the Center for Media Justice), which along with Working Narratives and Prison Legal News, has been organizing the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice. Also with us was Line Break Media, advocates for media justice, and University of St. Thomas Law School Professor Artika Tyner, whose Community Justice Project Legal Clinic has given students a chance to be part of the campaign.
The glue for our small group was Steven Renderos, National Organizer for the Center for Media Justice. I first met Steven when I joined OAP two years ago and he gave me a crash course in media justice. As an OAP board member he helped our organization wade through the technical side of media, but also opened our eyes to the social justice issues resulting from who does and does not have access to media and communication. Now based in New York, we see him less, but his calls and emails keep us in the loop. His call last week was to come together around the anticipated FCC vote — and he would be in town to join us.
The prison phone rates issue has not made many front page headlines, but it is one worthy of our attention. In the U.S., 2.7 million children have at least one parent in prison. The majority are children of color. According to The Sentencing Project, “[c]hildren of incarcerated parents are more likely to drop out of school, engage in delinquency, and subsequently be incarcerated themselves.” Keeping in touch with a parent is crucial for a child’s well-being and future. Maintaining family connections also helps support more positive re-entry and reduces recidivism.
Staying in touch has been challenging because of the cost of interstate phone calls from prisoners to their families. Phone companies have set rates as high as $1 per minute and added connection fees on top of that. A 15 minute call can cost $17. For prisoners who are deaf or hard of hearing, the costs are even higher because of the slower communications technology. Families of immigrants held in detention facilities across state lines also face these high costs.
Families of inmates are the ones who suffer the costs of staying connected. The majority of families are already struggling and in poverty. During the FCC meeting, we heard testimony from Bethany Fraser, a mother of two young sons whose father is incarcerated: “As you vote today I would like each of you to know that I would do anything, and pay any amount to keep my children connected to their father. But choosing between essential needs and keeping kids connected to their parents is a choice no family should have to make.”
With the FCC’s 2-1 vote, interstate calls are capped at .25 per minute. Providers will no longer be able to charge additional connection fees. They will not be allowed to charge deaf inmates higher rates for the additional technology required. The commissions or kickbacks that prisons received from companies providing interstate phone service will no longer be a part of the picture.
That is where the next action will be necessary. Many states allow for prisons to accept commissions from phone companies and in-state calls will still face the high rates that can result from this scheme. Minnesota is one of the states where prisons have this incentive to do business with companies charging high rates. Eight states have already banned this practice, and at least two more have legislation in the works.
Many of us take connection for granted, calling and texting family and friends all month long with rates lower than one phone call for a family of an inmate. Last Friday morning was different. Witnessing the testimony, connected to groups across the country who were also watching the FCC live stream, we were reminded of the value of human connection and the difference it can make.