When Martha Wright’s grandson was moved to a prison outside of her hometown of Washington, DC., she didn’t expect that a short 5-minute conversation with him could cost up to $18.
"You just have to get everything out in one line," she laughs.
For Wright, phone calls and writing letters are the primary ways she can stay in touch with her grandson, Ulandis Forte, who has been in prison for nearly 20 years. Forte was 19-years old when he was charged with murder in a Washington, DC court. According to Wright, he was home from school on break when a birthday brawl took a turn for the worse and another boy wound up dead. "He did the time," says Wright. "I told him he has to go forward and repent for that."
Now 38-years old, Forte is set to be released on parole this August. In the two decades since he’s been imprisoned, Wright has been among the only constants in her grandson’s life. His mother died in 2006 and his father is paralyzed from a basketball accident. She’s 86-years old, retired, blind and has "all kinds of illness," she says. When she was in better health, Wright would visit her grandson in prison. She traveled to see him after he was transferred from a DC-owned prison in Virginia to one in New Mexico, and then bounced around from Arizona to Ohio. He’s now housed at the Allenwood Correctional Facility in White Dear, Pennsylvania.
She’s too fragile to make the four hour trip to visit her grandson in person, so she’s only able to manage the trip twice a year. Between visits, they talk for about five minutes twice a week. But that contact comes at a steep price.
"It’s terribly expensive," she says. "It’s awful." In 2000, Wright, along with other families of prisoners, filed a class-action lawsuit against Corrections Corporation of America seeking federal action to get relief from what they considered exorbitant phone call charges. In 2007, after the case failed to end in a settlement, the petitioners filed another proposal that would put a limit on how much companies could charge prisoners and their families for phone calls, and eliminate costly connection fees. The Federal Communications Commission has yet to make a ruling on the proposal.
On Mother’s Day, a campaign launched by a trio of media justice and prison reform groups aims to force the FCC’s hand in the matter. The Center for Media Justice, along with Prison Legal News and Working Narratives, are leading an effort to get prison phone rates onto the FCC’s legislative to-do list. Last week, the groups encouraged supporters to submit stories about their hardships communicating with loved ones in prison to then be turned over to the Commission in hopes that it will finally move toward regulating the private companies that oversee prison phone calls.
For the activists who are involved, it’s an issue that falls clearly along racial lines. About 35 percent of prisoners are Latino and 37 percent are Black, according to March statistics from the Bureau of Prisoners. And many of them are poor. About 88 percent of people awaiting trial or serving time in jail had no income or made less than $1,200 a month, according to Bureau of Justice. While incarcerated, prisoners make only cents an hour. Because Forte doesn’t have a livable income, Wright sends him $275 to help him out with basic expenses.
"Communities of color are most directly impacted by the high cost of prison phone calls," says Steven Renderos, national organizer with the Center for Media Justice. "What’s at stake is not just the price of a phone call, it’s the health and well being of our families and loved ones struggling to stay connected."
Prisoners can usually call home in two ways: they can call collect or use a debit card issued by the prison. Debit cards are usually the cheaper options, but they’re not available in all states and still costly. In March, Wright’s grandson didn’t have enough money on his card for their usual phone calls, so they only spoke about three minutes one week, she says. That call cost $18, including taxes.
"He buys so many minutes and when his minutes run out, they cut off on you," says Wright.
The "they" in this case is Global Tel*Link, a private Alabama-based phone company contracted with Pennsylvania to provide prison phone services. Last year the company acquired three of its competitors and now contracts with over half of state prisons to provide phone services. In 2008, the company gave Pennsylvania over $7 million in additional state revenue. Over $82,000 of that revenue was generated by roughly 21,000 interstate calls like Forte’s to his grandmother in Washington, DC. The practice is known widely as a "kickback", a percentage of the phone call profits collected by the state. The companies inflate the phone rates to cover the cost of the commission and still make a profit.
For years, states have contracted with private companies to provide telephone services through a typical bidding process administered through the state’s Department of Corrections or, like in Pennsylvania, the Governor’s Administration Office. In some states the public utilities commission approve of the final phone rates and commission. But in others like Maine, the Department of Corrections has no oversight from the commission, or any other agency on how it sets up the rates. Nationwide, only seven states and the District of Columbia have stopped accepting kickbacks – California, New Mexico, South Carolina, Nebraska, Michigan, Rhode Island and Missouri.
Because most state prisons are located far away from any metropolitan area, many prisoners pay long distance fees to stay in touch with family members and friends.
"Quite honestly I don’t know anyone, middle class or not, who could afford the cost of these calls," says Nick Szuberla, a media artist with Working Narratives, a national multi-media social justice organization. "It’s not even just because people are low-income. I don’t think anyone could afford these calls."
Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections told Colorlines.com that the kickbacks are placed in their Inmate General Welfare Fund which is used to purchase items like weight lifting equipment, sports equipment, satellite radio, religious supplies and visiting room supplies. Before New York ended kickbacks in 2007, the Department of Corrections used the revenue to provide health services for prisoners living with HIV/AIDS. But health services are something that prisons are required to provide by law, and that fact was hammered home by activists in New York who led a successful campaign to end kickbacks and reduce prison phone rates back in 2007.
In order for inmates to successful re-integrate into society, it’s crucial for them to maintain ties to their families while incarcerated, say advocates. A 2005 report by the Anne E. Casey Foundation found that prisoners’ first and last resort for housing and support are their families. When prisoner’s maintain contact with family during their incarceration, they’re also less likely to return to prison, according to a report from the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center.
"A vast majority of those people are going to come back to the community," said Deborah Golden, an attorney with the D.C. Prisoners’ Project at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee and counsel on the Wright case. "Every piece of research we have says that stronger family ties increase the odds that someone will have a successful reintegration."
Now, the focus on the FCC to finally act. But that’s much easier said than done, according to some observers.
"Apparently, the biggest reason for the failure of the Commission to act in recent years is the lack of adequate interest and staffing," said Lee Petro, a volunteer attorney on the Wright case, in an email to Colorlines. "With the resolution of the other long-pending matters, the recent additions of two new Commissioners, and new technologies developed by the service providers that has decreased their costs of service, prompt action now will give relief to struggling families in these tough economic times."
Although the telecom industry is a strong influence in Washington, the campaign has already garnered the support of Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. In a recent speech at Catholic University, she asked the commission to review the languishing documents which "have significant implications for making phone service affordable for inmates and their families who are currently making unbelievable economic sacrifices in order to keep their families connected."
For Wright and her grandson, that connection has proved pivotal for nearly two decades.
"He wants to be a counselor [when he gets out]," Wright says of her grandson. "He wants to go around and help people in jail."
Leticia Miranda is a writer and researcher at New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute.