Families fight the cost of prison phone calls

theGRIO REPORT - Pressure is mounting in what has been an almost decade-long campaign for phone companies to lower the costs of prison phone calls....

Pressure is mounting in what has been an almost decade-long campaign for phone companies to lower the costs of prison phone calls. At a connection fee of up to four dollars and a per-minute fee up to 89 cents, a 15-minute phone call between inmates and their family members could total almost $20 dollars.

“You just have to get everything out in one line,” Martha Wright, whose grandson Ulandis Forte was transferred between several state prisons around the country when he was incarcerated, jokingly told Colorlines.

Wright is the face of the campaign. She first filed what’s now known as the Wright petition with the FCC in 2003 after she realized how expensive it was to keep in contact with her grandson. Wright, who is in her eighties, didn’t have the option to visit him regularly or, because of her blindness, write him letters.

Other families also struggle with the costs, sometimes having to make the decision between talking to their relative behind bars or paying for other living necessities.

According to the U.S. Census, there are over 1.6 million prisoners in the United States and statistics from the Bureau of Prisoners lists 37 percent of those prisoners as black and 35 percent of them as Latino. This leads to a thousands of minority families, many of them poor, not being able to afford to stay in touch with their incarcerated relatives.

The calls come at such steep prices because unregulated phone companies pay states a commission, or “kickback,” ranging from 15 to 60 percent, according to the New York Times. The monopoly by these companies allows both them and the state to make an alarming amount of income from phone calls.

A Colorlines infographic reported states like Alabama and Washington make over $5 million from high phone rates. Georgia topped the list with an income over $7.8 million.

Congressmen Henry A. Waxman and Bobby L. Rush wrote a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski urging him to make a decision about the “exorbitant rates families of prisoners pay.”

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn met with Wright, Forte and others earlier this week about the issue.

“I am pleased that the Chairman has been receptive to the Wright Petitioners, and my discussions with him and his office have been very positive about the next steps needed to move forward in this proceeding,” Clyburn said in a recent statement.

“She never gave up on her grandson and always knew that to keep her family together, communications was key,” Clyburn told Politico. “I think about the Mrs. Martha Wrights of the world and their families. These are not rich families that can afford an $18 phone call for a few minutes … That is why I’m committed to moving this petition.”

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