March , 2019

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Seek end to kickback scheme that hurts families


By Chinta Strausberg


Leaders of a diverse civil rights and conservative coalition recently voiced outrage over unfair and predatory prison phone rates that force some families to literally choose between buying food or medicine versus accepting calls from love ones who are incarcerated.

Why? Because some of these prison calls are more expensive to make than phoning Singapore. It is a prison phone system that is fraught with kickbacks where last year some states received an estimated $152 million in contract commissions and kickbacks from companies that won exclusive rights to provide prison phone networks and services.

Saying it’s time for a change, the coalition sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) calling for prison phone rate reform, including calling for an end to predatory phone rates the coalition says is anti-family and anti-inmate rehabilitation.

In a national teleconference with the media representing more than 30 organizations including the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, the American Conservative Union, the National Urban League and the National Organization for Women, leaders called for an end to what some called a “sleeper issue of prison reform.”

Many of these organizations, comprised of leading conservative and centrist voices, are seldom on the same page on most issues; however, the families of inmates are coming together under this coalition to stand united in their fight to communicate affordably with family members who are behind bars and “keep close relationships alive.”

Affordable prison phone rates are said to be rehabilitative and life saving for prisoners.  The coalition has alleged that the cause for much of these inflated rates is tied to state procurement systems and prisons that allegedly get “kick-backs or commissions,” which are then passed along to and absorbed by families of inmates in the form of excessive prison phone rates.

Family members should have the fundamental right and ability remain in contact with each other, and that right should not be influenced or abridged in any way based on where another family member lives in this country – even if that place is a prison,” said Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-1st).

“Because Internet telephone and cheaper calling systems are so prevalent in our country today, there is no sound basis for why families whose calls pass through prison phone networks should have to pay 10 to 20 times more than families whose calls pass through public landline and wireless networks,” Rush stated.

“The FCC has gone all in to fight the ‘digital divide’ but what about the ‘family divide’? One thing for certain is that this coalition of very diverse interests and backgrounds is not is divided,” said Rush.

In an interview later with this writer, Lee Petro, an attorney in the Washington, D.C. office of the Drinker, Biddle & Reath law firm, who represents Martha Wright, discussed the legal and procedural backdrop for this standoff.

Mrs. Wright, whose grandson was incarcerated 20-years ago, filed a class action lawsuit in 2000, along with 19 other family members whose relatives were also in prison opposing high priced prison phone calls and exclusive state contracts for prison phone services.

Petro explained that in the class action suit, the plaintiffs petitioned the D.C.’s District court to eliminate exclusive phone contracts between private prisons and telephone companies.

“In August of 2001, the FCC had asked for the case to be remanded to their agency so it could resolve the matter” being that the agency had jurisdiction over telephone phone rates, explained Petro. The Court referred the matter to the FCC. The FCC did file comments in response to this issue; however, the agency did not immediately back the proper proceedings.

As a result, in 2003 and on behalf of Wright and the 19 families, Petro filed a class action suit and a petition for rulemaking was filed with the FCC seeking a ruling from that agency that the exclusive contract between the private prisons and telephone companies was unreasonable and should be terminated.

Petro explained that the contract contained “provisions that had the telephone companies paying enormous commissions or kick-backs to the prison or to the states that needed to accept these rates between inmates and their families, lawyers and other parties.”

In 2003, after the petition was filed, the FCC opened the proceeding up for public comment; however, Petro said the FCC “failed to act over the next four-years” prompting him to file an alternative petition for rulemaking to the FCC in 2007.

Referring to the alternative proposal, Petro said, “rather than seeking to eliminate the contracts themselves, in the 2007 pleading Mrs. Wright asked the FCC to set a benchmark rate that can be charged to the family members receiving prison phone calls at 20-cents per minute for a pre-paid debit phone card and 25-cents a minute for collect calls, provided that debit calls were not available at that location with no set up costs associated.”

Petro said the FCC placed the alternative proposal on public notice and that comments were filed in the proceeding. “Parties came in, met with the FCC staff over the next five-years and the Commission has yet to issue a ruling on that as well.”

When asked why is the FCC dragging its feet on this issue, Petro said, “Part of the explanation we received is that the staff has been tasked on other matters like the National Broadband plan…and the interests of the inmates and their family members don’t rise to the same level, doesn’t make the same splash that a National broadband plan makes. The staff has been rerouted and re-delegated away from dealing with this issue.”

Petro said there are eight states that have taken steps to eliminate commissions associated with prison phone contracts. ‘What we found in those eight states, the rates have been cut down, and across the board the costs for providing the service have dropped by leaps and bounds” which he attributes to technological developments.”

One of the leading prison phone providers in the nation is Securus Technology, which in some instances has lowered its rates due to technological advancements. However, Petro said, “There is no reason why a 15-minute phone call should be $18 or $20.

Also on the teleconference was Wade Henderson, president/CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, who told reporters many prison officials don’t view prisoner phone calls as life-saving rather “they view them as revenue generators…ways to pad their bottom line.” He said his coalition is committed to reforming “this outrageous and predatory practice.”

As Henderson recognized David Keene, former chairman of the American Conservative Union, he said, “David and I diverge on many issues but we are united on the need to address what one might call a sleeper issue of prison reform…predatory prison phone rates.”

It was Henderson who said America has the largest prison population in the world “and it’s disproportionately black and brown,” he said. “We imprison people for years for offenses that in other industrialized countries are measures in days or subject to alternative sentencing and then when individuals leave the system, we often fail to provide opportunities for them to become fully contributing members of society driving them instead to the margins of our communities.”

Backing up Henderson’s claim that the prison population is mostly black and Hispanic,  Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, said for 2010 Blacks make up 38 percent of both the state and federal prison population and Hispanics represent 22 percent for a combined 60 percent.

Those numbers disturb Henderson and his coalition. “Prisons should be institutions of rehabilitation, not just punishment, and there need to be ways to help ex-offenders to become upstanding, productive members of society upon their release,” said Henderson.

Pointing to a coalition member, Pat Nolan, president of Justice Fellowship and a former inmate, Henderson said having affordable phone rates is an encouragement “to maintain stable relationships with their loved ones on the outside so they can receive critical moral support and build a safety net to help them readjust to life after being released.”

Henderson said a call on Mother’s Day or wishing happy birthday to their children he described as “small gestures that keep love and friendships growing that are often the only way for many inmates to keep those close relationships alive.”

The problem, Henderson said, is that some prisons “don’t view these precious ties as rehabilitative or life-saving; instead they view them as revenue generators, ways to pad their bottom line. Prisons extract commissions from telephone companies in exchange for service contracts. These extra fees are passed on to prisoners families in the form of predatory rates for a literally captive audience.”

According to Henderson, phone calls placed in prisons can result in charges ranging from $10 to 17 for a 15-minute call or $250 a month for a weekly one-hour call. “It’s about ten times more expensive to call anyone from a prison than it would be to call Singapore from your office desk.” He said these excessively high phone rates “negatively impact violence in prisons, recidivism and access to counsel” while playing an unfair financial burden on the prisoners families and their loved ones.

“These predatory kickbacks to prisons resulted in $152 million in revenue in 2011, and this must stop,” said Henderson. He said Wright is seeking a cap on these rates. Referring to Wright’s petition to the FCC, Henderson said if the agency approved this petition “would immediately impact long-distance rates and would provide a strong impetus to the 42 states that have not yet acted to remedy their own local prison telephone rates.”

Keene told reporters the high priced prison phone calls “make no sense to cut off or make impossible their communication with their families” and it does nothing to help rehabilitate prisoners or to reintegrate back into society. The $152 million prisons have received as a result of excessive phone rates “comes as a tax directly on the poorest people in our society” making it impossible for communication to take place.

Nolan, a key convener of this diverse coalition and a former inmate, said a key reason for helping transition inmates back into society is to keep families together. These charges “undercut that” by making these “outrageous charges at a time when we pay pennies for phone calls.” He said due to the distance between the families and the location of prisons “the only communication they can have is by telephone…. To have $4.50 as a connection charge and a surcharge for each minute that goes by gouge the very people that can’t afford it….”

Referring to the alleged prison phone rate kickbacks, Nolan said, “It is an inherent conflict of interest to have the state be the one to set the contract with the telephone companies when they are not the ones paying the bill.”

He said the prisons make money by charging the inmate families more. “It’s the commission that determines which phone company they will go with whomever basically pays this extortion of millions of dollars in fees gets the contract, not the company that provides the best service at the lowest price,” said Nolan.  Getting the petition improved by the FCC is the only way to stop the gouging of inmate families.

Amalia Deloney, associate director of the Center for Media Justice, said, “This is a fight for the right to call home.” She said it is not fair that prison phone connections “are treated as an expensive privilege rather than a basic right. We believe that communication is a fundamental human right” especially for the incarcerated.

The alternative of sending letters is problematic, she said. Saying it does not allow adequate communication to a child “that the only way they can stay in contact with their mom and dad is through crayons, paper, letters and cards they are able to write. It does not convey full range of emotional issues that children need to talk about with their parents” or with their partners. Deloney said there is also a literacy problem many inmates have.

Driving her argument closer to home, Deloney said, “It cost more for a child to accept a call from their parent in prison than it does to buy that same child a gallon of milk; yet both are essential to the development of that child.” Besides the high prices, some prisons restrict the time inmates can be on the phone.

Deloney said of the mostly black and Hispanic prison inmates, there are 1.7 million children who have a parent behind bars. Besides the excessive rate, Deloney explained, “Up to 60 percent of what a prisoner’s family is paying for these calls have absolutely nothing to do with the cost of the service provided. This is another example of corporations in particular putting profits ahead of people” who are suffering. People, she said, want change.

Deloney is fighting back having recently collected more than 700 postcard stories in one day who are impacted by the excessive prison phone calls including from attorneys, stories from children and their parents “talking about the choice between paying for their medication vs. the call, the choice between keep the electricity on vs. the call, the choice between putting gas, paying groceries vs. the call.” In addition to the postcards sent, Deloney said thousands responded via Twitter.

“I applaud this coalition of conservative, liberal and civil rights organizations for rallying around this serious issue which strips families of their fundamental right to communicate affordably with one another. They are perfectly justified in asking the FCC why has it taken more than 10 years to resolve these issues,” said Congressman Rush.

The FCC says it is still working to address the disparity in the prison phone system.

Chinta Strausberg is a Journalist of more than 33-years, a former political reporter and a current PCC Network talk show host. You can e-mail Strausberg at: Chintabernie@aol.com.

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