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FCC Needs More ‘Courage’ in Curbing Prison Phone Costs: Advocates

The Crime Report, May 4, 2021.

A Federal Communication Commission (FCC) order to cap phone rates for incarcerees is “too little…for too few,” say supporters of the Prison Phone Justice campaign.

Calling the April 29 draft decision a welcome step in reducing the costs for inmates and their families, members of the coalition of civil rights activists lobbying for reform say the FCC needs to show more ”courage” in pushing back on the private companies who charge what they have called exorbitant fees whose burden falls primarily on poor and marginalized communities.

“The breadth of the relief proposed is so narrow — it’s too little and for too few,” said Bianca Tylek, Executive Director of Worth Rises.

“The limitations on the FCC imposed by precedent legal decisions continue to stymie meaningful industry regulation, and we hope to see the FCC exercise courage in pushing back.”

The draft order, proposed by Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, reforms some of the most criticized ancillary service charge rules, including lowering interstate interim rate caps to 12 cents a minute for prisons and 14 cents a minute for jails holding more than 1,000 people.

It also caps the international rate, proposes consistent data collection on phone fees and suggests reform measures regarding the incarcerated population with hearing and speech disabilities, among other reforms.

“Acting Chair Rosenworcel today proposed an important step forward on the excruciatingly long road toward full and just communications rights and charges for incarcerated people and their loved ones as well as the rights of incarcerated people with disabilities,” said Cheryl A. Leanza, policy advisor for the United Church of Christ’s Media Justice Ministry.

“This is an important step at a critical time. At the same time, I wish the agency could have gone further.”

Complaints about the draft order primarily surround the commission’s lack of reform on kickback payments, with some advocates also calling for the elimination of phone fees altogether, including for jails with a population of less than 1,000 people.

According to Politico, one in three families of incarcerated people go into debt due to phone related fees.

“These families, who are disproportionately Black and low-income have been forced to make a painful decision between hearing the voices of their loved ones and facing deep economic hardship — even during the pandemic,” said Scott Roberts, Senior Director of Criminal Justice and Democracy Campaigns for Color of Change.

“The FCC must rein in corporate greed by the prison telecommunication companies, end their predatory practices, and make prison phone calls completely free of charge.”

For years, family members of the incarcerated and advocacy groups alike have called on officials to lower the rates of phone calls in prisons and jails so that those who are incarcerated aren’t further punished by not getting to speak with family and friends.

The phone industry that governs fees and rates for phones within the criminal justice system has long been criticized for overcharging those who are disadvantaged.

Aside from the mental health benefits of keeping in touch with family and friends, “studies have consistently found that prisoners who maintain close contact with their family members while incarcerated have better post-release outcomes and lower recidivism rates,” said Prison Legal News.

This means that services the incarcerated often depend on how often they can communicate with caregivers outside prison walls.

“Prisons and jails cannot continue to be allowed to shift their operational costs onto incarcerated people and their families through communication,” said Tylek. “It’s breaking up families and pillaging communities,”

The problem affects those who aren’t even convicted.

Individuals who are kept in jail because they can’t afford bail or a bail bond can rack up even more debt by using phones, even though they aren’t yet convicted.

The problem has only worsened during the pandemic.

Many jails and prisons have resorted to isolation to keep members of a correctional facility distanced from each other in an attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Already distanced from other incarcerated people in the facility, communication with a loved one is seen as vital to an incarcerated person’s mental health.

Amidst advocacy leaders’ concerns about the drafted order, the legislation is still a large step towards less phone fines and fees, as well as progress for those with disabilities.

“Because functionally equivalent means of communication with the outside world are often unavailable to incarcerated people with communication disabilities, they are effectively trapped in a ‘prison within a prison,’” said the draft order.

“The ability to make telephone calls is not just important to maintain familial and intimate relationships necessary for successful rehabilitation, but also crucial to allow for communication with legal representatives and medical professionals.”

Overall, the advocacy groups saw the order as a “step in the right direction” for the FCC.

“Thankfully, these are interim steps, and we look forward to working with the FCC to bring about more robust relief in the future,” said Tylek.

In related news, a nonprofit called Ameelio has announced it is developing a free video-calling platform as an alternative to two companies that have monopolized the communications industry in prisons and jails and driven prices higher through questionable practices like offering prisons a cut of the proceeds, reports Fast Company.

In the most extreme cases, making a call from behind bars can cost as much as $25 for a 15-minute call. Ameelio’s app lets someone quickly compose a message and attach a photo, then looks up the inmate’s address (something that’s often complicated to find) and prints and mails a free letter through a direct mailing service.

This year, the nonprofit will launch a free video calling app, the first of its kind. By the end of the year, it plans to pilot the service in three states.

The app can be used not only for calls with family and friends, but to offer services like education or therapy sessions. Congress recently lifted a ban on Pell Grants for people who are incarcerated, so more prisoners may want to access higher education; the nonprofit is beginning to partner with educational institutions to use the new platform both for classes and for services like academic advising or tutoring.

The companies that dominate prison communications now often force prisons to adopt proprietary tablets and other devices that can’t access tools like Khan Academy, so Ameelio is also advocating for institutions to switch to devices like Chromebooks. In addition,  11 states so far have outlawed the “commission” model where prison telecom companies pay a kickback to prisons using their services, increasing rates. Ameelio will begin working with those states first as it pushes others to follow suit.