Written by Anthony Moujaes
UPDATE: The FCC on Friday, Aug. 9, adopted a temporary rate cap of $0.21 per minute for debit and prepaid phone dcalls for prisoner, and a cap of $0.25 a minute for collect calls. It effectively means that phone companies can charge no more than $3.75 for a 15-minute phone call.
United Church of Christ leaders, and the denomination's media justice ministry, the Office of Communication, Inc., have long been active in calling for an end to predatory prison phone rates. After a decade of tireless work, those calls might finally be answered.
Led by acting chairwoman Mignon Clyburn, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has scheduled a vote for Friday, Aug. 9, on a long-pending petition to reform predatory prison phone rates – something the denomination is grateful for.
"Less than a year ago, I joined inmate families as they rallied outside the FCC asking for an end to long-distance predatory prison phone rates. Tomorrow the FCC will act under the leadership of Clyburn, who heard the call of justice," said the Rev. Geoffrey Black, general minister and president of the UCC. "We offer Chairwoman Clyburn and her staff our gratitude for taking action and ending 10 years of delay. We are very proud of the role the UCC's historic media justice ministry played in bringing about the FCC vote."
"Our denomination stands with those who call for fair pricing, so that the rights and needs of people in prison are protected, so that their families are not further devastated by the absence of a loved one, and so that rehabilitation and correction are possible," said the Rev. Sala W. J. Nolan, UCC minister for criminal justice and human rights.
Families or pastors attempting to call prisoners often have to spend as much as $200 per month to make a weekly telephone call. Prison phone rates can be costly because prisons select telephone providers, and in some cases the provider which 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.
"The UCC has been engaged in human rights advocacy since its inception, and strongly supports a challenge to this corporate practice, which is extremely damaging to inmates and their families," Nolan said. "People who are incarcerated are a vulnerable and captive population whose opportunities to connect with families, especially children, are limited. Current price-gouging practices make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to maintain regular contact with loved ones. This is especially true for people whose families live far away from the place of their incarceration."
Nolan gave an example in Northeastern Ohio, where in the greater-Cleveland area some calls that would be considered local for everyday phone customers are considered long-distance calls from a prison telephone provider, adding an additional $10 for each call.
"Prisoners must work to earn money for these calls. They earn $0.13 per hour, [and] one local call represents more than 77 work hours," Nolan said. "A call to family out of state – say to Atlanta – costs inmates about $30, in addition to the charge to the person outside of prison. This represents over 230 hours of labor – one-and-a-half months of work to pay for one phone call, if all of one's earnings go only to that, and not to purchase basic goods, such as soap."
Some states have enacted prison reform legislation, bringing rates down to as little as $0.05 per minute. If the purpose of incarceration is to rehabilitate, Nolan questions why any state would permit predatory prison phone rates that cause a financial strain on families of prisoners. "Maintaining strong communication with families is one of the most important factors tied to keeping inmates from [returning to their previous behavior] after their release," Nolan said. "Why, then, would the state allow predatory practices that make communication with families difficult, if not impossible? How do they expect mothers with distant families that cannot visit to maintain connection with their children?"
Learn more about the UCC and OC Inc. involvement in prison phone rates online.