Prison reform isn’t usually an issue that makes it to the top of holiday wish lists. But as the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, the fight to keep families connected through prison walls is gaining considerable momentem. And as it does, the strategies used by organizers and activists have become emblematic of a broad-based approach to take two so-called "fringe" issues–prison reform and telecommunications policy–and bring them to the doorstep of new constituencies.
The Federal Communications Commission is the regulatory body that oversees the vast and complicated system governing calls from prison facilities in the United States. Last week, the commission announced that it would consider actions to cut rates that inmates and advocates have critized as exorbitant. The commission’s hand was forced by an ongoing nationwide effort called the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, a collecton of more than 40 advocacy groups, which rallied at the commission last week to bring attention to the issue.
"For far too long, friends and family of the incarcerated have had no choice but to pay unconscionably high long-distance rates," Commissioner Mignon Clyburn told demonstrators outside the agency’s headquarters in Washington last week.
FCC Chair Julius Genachowski announced last week that the agency will start an information-gathering process. Advocates are hoping that the process eventually leads to stricter oversight of the industry.
Yet some say that there’s already been a significant victory to be claimed in how the issue of prison phones have been framed. It is an issue that focuses almost entirely on inmates’ families, and in many ways, eschews the underlying tough-on-crime rhetoric that has dominated U.S. political discourse since the 1980s.
The Cost of Staying Connected
At issue is the role of private equity in the prison telecommunications market. There are currently two that dominate that market in the United States: Global Tel*Link and Securus Technologies Inc. The companies bid for the rights to provide exlcusive telephone service to state prison facilities, agreeing to pay a portion of the charges, known as "kickbacks," to the state government.
Inmates can make collect calls to loved ones, or set up prepaid accounts that are paid for by relatives or with earnings from prison jobs, which only pay cents per hour. The industry generates about $1.2 billion each year.
Yet what’s lucrative for some is impossible for many. A study released this year by the Prison Policy Initiative noted that calls from prison can cost as much as $17 for just 15 minutes, a price that’s out of reach for many inmates and their loved ones.
"In order to show this is an issue that impacts our nation as a whole, it’s been important to use a narrative that correctly highlights non-traditional groups that might have a stake in this fight," said amalia deloney, associate director of the Center for Media Justice. "I think it’s about using a movement building and narrative approach that offers a story that many groups can hear and feel and find a home in. Finding a place to belong and then act together in this campaign is important to us."
Telecommunications policies in general have been a tough sell as something regular folks should care about; news about the nation’s communications infrastructure is usually relegated to the business or technology sections. Yet recent examples like the massive fight against the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) earlier this year show that once people are able to identify their personal stake in an issue, they’re willing to fight for it.
"It’s not just an issue that affects prisoners, it’s an issue that affects families of prisoners and the communities they come from," said Mel Motel, who works with Prison Legal News in Vermont, one of the groups that’s been advocating to lower prison phone rates. "This touches millions and millions of people, and we’ve had so much support and action from so many different sectors, from faith communities and civil rights groups."
The public seems to have become more palpatable to discussing prison reform. Earlier this month, voters in California agreed to lessen the severity of that state’s three-strikes law in response to several instances in which people were sentenced to life imprisonment for non-violence offenses. Yet the fight to lower the cost of prison phones is one that’s focused on communities instead of individuals. And so far, it’s working.
With an estimated two million people in the U.S. behind bars, zereoing in on the impact that mass incarceration has had on entire communities has been crucial. There are roughly 2.7 million children in the U.S. with one or more parents in prison, according to some estimates. Statistics like those have provided a crucial framework to help advance the issue.
"I think the families framing is working really well–namely, because it helps to expand and deepen the understanding of the wide impact that incarceration has," said deloney. "It’s shifted the debate away from punishment to one of consumer protections, family reunification, reduced recidivism and rehabilitation."
Indeed, recidivism and rehabilitation have been important points in bringing together a diverse coalition to lower prison phone rates. A report from the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center found that inmates who maintain contact with family during their incarceration are less likely to return to prison.
States Confront the Issue
Slowly, the tide is turning toward reform. Before the FCC’s announcement that it would take on the issue, at least two states have put it on their legislative agendas. Several states, including New York, New Mexico, and Alaska, have discontinued the practice of accepting so-called "kickbacks" from private telephone companies that operate state prison phone systems.
The Louisiana Public Service Commission is expected to decide next month whether to cap inmate phone rates in that state. The commission’s chair, Foster Campbell, argued in favor of the cap, noting that poorer families often suffer more of the burden.
An outside consultant has proposed establishing a single rate of $1.69 for the initial minute and $.05 afterward for inmate phone calls, which results in about a 25 percent reduction from current costs.
"It stinks to high heaven," said Campbell of the current system, according to the Times-Picayune. "What in the world are we coming to in the state of Louisiana when we won’t give these people a break?"