The Secret Weapon in the Prison Phone Rate Fight? Familes

A campaign led by the families of prisoners finally pushed the FCC's hand toward regulating the prison phone industry.

By Jamilah King Aug 12, 2013

Radio producer Nick Szuberla had an agenda when he moved from Toledo, Ohio, to Whitesburg, Ky. in the late 1990s. He wanted to bring attention to the country’s rapid prison expansion, a tide that was snatching up mostly poor people of color and dropping them into the middle of largely white rural communities. So he put himself in the heart of Appalachia, right between two federal penitentiaries, and he used the tool that he knew best: radio airwaves.

The radio show he created, called "Holler to the Hood," became controversial in the working class white town. "We played hip-hop in a sea of country and bluegrass," Szuberla remembers. But the target demographic–the thousands of incarcerated people of color from places as far away as the Virgin Islands, Hawaii, New Mexico and California and their families–were listening.

Soon, letters started to come in from inmates describing what Szuberla calls human rights abuses–prisoners wrote that they were being subdued with tasers and strapped down to tables for 72 hours for breaking rules. In the fall of 2001, to call attention to the abuses, Szuberla and his close group of activist allies organized a one-day action in which inmates’ families could call into the show to send holiday greetings to their incarcerated loved ones.

They got hundreds of calls all in the hopes that their messages would reach men and women in prison. "People would say what they cooked for dinner last week, or who scored a touchdown in Pee Wee Football, or who got married, or whose cousin had cancer," Szuberla says.

As a radio producer Szuberla thought the content was great, but he found the context was troubling. "I don’t think someone should have to tell their brother over the radio that their mom just died," he says. "They just couldn’t afford the phone calls."

Up until last Friday prison phone service existed in an unregulated market dominated by private companies. A typical interstate collect call came with a $3.95 connection fee and rates that could reach as high as 90 cents per minute, according to some estimates. A fifteen-minute call could easily cost families between $10 and $17, and a one-hour call once a week would cost $250 per month.

On Friday, thanks to the efforts of activists like Szuberla and the families of incarcerated people involved with the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, the Federal Communications Commission finally intervened. The agency issued an order requiring phone companies to base rates on the actual cost of phone service and cap them at 25 cents per minute while the Commission collects more data. It also prohibits companies from charging deaf and hard-of-hearing customers extra for the use of relay services.

"For 10 years, the families and friends of inmates have been asking the FCC to ease the burden of an inmate calling rate structure," acting chairwoman Mignon Clyburn said at the hearing. "Their wait is finally over."

Families at the Center

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are more than 2 million adults incarcerated in the United States and more than 70,000 young people being held at juvenile detention facilities, a growing number of whom have been non-violent drug offenders. But there are millions more affected by incarceration, including an estimated 2.7 million children who have at least one parent in a prison or jail. Studies have shown that the incarceration of a parent has an intensely traumatic effect on children, akin to the death of a loved one.

The mother of two small boys whose father is currently incarcerated, Bethany Fraser knows all too well the tough choices that families like hers have had to make between basic necessities like groceries and the exorbitant cost of prison phone calls. "My kids are among the 2.7 million children with an incarcerated parent. Losing their father to prison also meant losing over half of our family’s income, and gaining a painfully large phone bill," she told FCC commissioners at at Friday’s hearing, fighting back tears. "As you vote today I would like each of you to know that I would do anything, and pay any amount to keep my children connected to their father. But choosing between essential needs and keeping kids connected to their parents is a choice no family should have to make."

The multi-pronged Campaign for Prison Phone Justice led by the Center for Media Justice, Prison Legal News and Working Narratives put stories like Fraser’s at the center of the campaign. It was  a clear shift in strategy for prison and media reform advocates. 

"Organizing around prison issues is a very difficult thing because they’re not relatable issues," says Steven Renderos, who as national organizer for the Center for Media Justice helped oversee the campaign. "People aren’t sympathetic to prisoners."

Other recent prison organizing efforts help illustrate this point. Twice in the past two years, thousands of inmates in California’s prisons have staged hunger strikes to protest the inhumane condition of long-term solitary confinement. So far they have been unsuccessful. Recent campaigns have also sprung up to address rampant sexual assault behind bars. But few have put families at the center of prison organizing like the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice.

The Wright Stuff

In the year 2000, around the same time that Nick Szuberla started his radio station in Kentucky, Martha Wright–a blind grandmother in her 80s–filed suit against the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) seeking federal action to help stem what she considered exorbitant phone charges. At the time Wright’s grandson Ulandis Forte was serving a 20-year sentence for murder. She became a leader in the prison phone campaign.

"You just have to get everything out in one line," Wright told back in 2012, the year her grandson was released. "It’s terribly expensive. It’s awful."

The suit, which included other families of prisoners but is widely referred to as the Wright petition, languished at the FCC through 2007. When the parties involved failed to come to terms in a settlement with CCA, the plaintiffs sued again. All the while, the FCC remained completely silent.

But in the the decade between Wright’s initial claim and the FCC taking up the matter in 2012, something shifted in the relationship between America and its prisons. The sheer enormity of America’s prison population led some in government to rethink crime and punishment. The Supreme Court ruled that California’s overcrowded prisons were unconstitutional. Several other states have considered early release for thousands of prisoners to help reduce budget deficits. There was also an appetite for explaining America’s astronomical prison growth, as shown by Michelle Alexander’s 2012 book, "The New Jim Crow," becoming a bestseller. Films such as the 2012 Sundance hit "Middle of Nowhere" also shed light on the impact of incarceration on loved ones. Organizers saw that families made for compelling spokespeople.

In fact, the prison phone campaign screened "Middle of Nowhere," which centers on a wife who tries to stay connected to her incarcerated husband, for FCC commissioners and the public. 

"We created a toolkit tailored toward people on the ground being able to document their story," Renderos says of the "Middle of Nowhere" action. "We created opportunities for people to utilize those skills–postcards to the FCC, sharing stories on our campaign website. Pretty much this was lead by families of prisoners."

"We put a face on the issue," says Fraser, the mother who testified before the FCC last week. Fraser says she was reluctant to go public with her family’s story because of what she described as a "quiet battle with stigma, embarrassment and shame." But after seeing "Middle of Nowhere," she says she saw herself on the screen.

"I don’t want my kids to not have contact with their father just because they can’t afford it," she says. "We should have the right to speak to him at affordable rates."