New prison phone regulations another victory for UCC media justice ministry

Marvin_Silver-Prison_Phone_Rates.jpgThe media justice ministry of the United Church of Christ is celebrating a hard-fought victory. The Office of Communication, Inc. (OC Inc.) rallied on Thursday, Oct. 22, outside the offices of the Federal Communications Commission as it adopted rules that will rein in the predatory prison phone industry. 

The move is a victory for social justice advocates who pushed for industry changes, and for millions of families of incarcerated persons who have struggled to connect with their loved ones.

The new limits cap the rates of all calls from prison, jails, and detention facilities, and ban most hidden fees that could double the cost of a call. The FCC also discouraged kickbacks from phone companies to prisons. 

“The vote is a victory, no questions asked,” said Cheryl Leanza, policy advisor for OC Inc. “The FCC is not only capping the rates paid by families, but cracking down on fees that could otherwise have been a source of abuse.” 

The Rev. Marvin Silver, associate conference minister for the Central Atlantic Conference UCC, spoke at the rally outside the FCC offices. “We are here to celebrate — the next step in prison communications reform happens today, in the next few minutes inside the FCC,” he said.

Silver also commented on the UCC’s social justice advocacy and Jesus Christ’s story of visiting the prisoner, which reads, “…I was in prison, and you came to visit me…”

SandySorensen-CherylLeanza-Prison_Phone-2.jpg“The United Church of Christ is well-known for many of its social justice stands, from its support for marriage equality, to its work against the New Jim Crow,” Silver said. “And we are also well-known for our work at the Federal Communications Commission, through our media justice ministry. So when an issue of Biblical instruction became directly applicable to a proceeding at the FCC, we were committed immediately to helping find a path forward.” 

OC Inc. already pushed the FCC to reform state-to-state (long distance) phone calls, which the commission did by instituting new rules in February 2014, but the media ministry pressed on, calling for caps on in-state (local) calls. Some states had already enacted legislation that brought prison phone rates down to as little as $0.05 per minute for in-state calls. 

Even FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn acknowledged the effort by Leanza and OC Inc. in the last decade for its advocacy.

Prison phone rates can be costly because facilities select local and long-distance telephone providers, and in some cases the provider that offers the largest payment to the prison obtains the right to offer service. The incarcerated can only use the telephone company selected by the prison and the calls are billed collect to families with rates as high as $1 per minute for calls. Hidden fees, including a  $3.95 connection fee or $10 payment fee, only compounded some bills.

“Make no mistake,” Leanza said, “the only entities harmed by this vote are the phone companies that have been gouging families and pastors for so long.” 

Categories: United Church of Christ News

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