Written by Anthony Moujaes
United Church of Christ leaders and the denomination's media justice arm, the Office of Communication, Inc. (OC, Inc.) are celebrating a victory that was a decade in the making. A new rate cap on prison phone calls took effect on Tuesday, Feb. 11, giving UCC leaders and activists a chance to pause and celebrate the milestone.
The new rates will protect families, pastors, community members and others from expensive phone bills for calls to people in prison, jails or detention centers.
The Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, UCC general minister and president, was "happy to be a part of the effort" when he spoke at a midday rally in Nov. 2012, calling on the FCC to take action on predatory phone rates. He’s just as happy the 10-plus years of advocacy have paid off.
"When I went down there to speak publicly about the issue, I met with our friends at OC Inc. who told me some of harsh realities of prison phone rates," Black said. "The new commissioner of the FCC was there as well, and I felt like we had a chance to really make some progress with this. Now we see the result, and it’s a day to celebrate."
The FCC voted in August to limit rates on state-to-state calls to $0.21 per minute for debit and prepaid phone calls, and $0.25 a minute for collect calls. It effectively means that prison phone companies can charge no more than $3.75 for a 15-minute phone call.
"Families are punished when a family member is incarcerated, and the family didn’t commit the crime," Black said. "Phone rates are an example of how that family is punished. It hampers their communication, but it also draws resources from people who don’t have much."
Cheryl Leanza, policy advisor for OC Inc., said "strong family connections improve the likelihood that when inmates are released, they will not become repeat offenders, and that makes our society safer."
Prison phone rates can be costly because prisons select telephone providers, and in some cases the provider that offers the largest payment to the prison obtains the right to offer service. Prisoners can only use the telephone company selected by the prison and the calls are billed collect to prisoner's families with rates as high as $0.89 per minute. According to OC Inc., the result was a $120 bill for a 15-minute weekly phone call.
OC, Inc. has posted more information about the new rules with a summary, FAQs and guide on filing a complaint at the FCC for prison phone call charges that are too costly.
With this first step complete, OC, Inc., plans to continue to advocate for rate caps on in-state calls for prison phone companies. Some states have enacted prison reform legislation, bringing rates down to as little as $0.05 per minute. Learn more about joining the UCC and OC Inc.’s efforts by signing a petition to the FCC to continue reforming prison phone rates.