FCC To Finally Rule On Cost of Prison Phone Calls This Friday

by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

A few years ago, one of my children was a federal prisoner in California, on the other side of the continent. I had a decent job, and could afford to fly out 2 or 3 times a year to visit, and we wrote. But there was no substitute for the Sunday night phone call. That weekly 15 minute call used to cost our family $90 every month. We couldn't afford it, but we paid anyway. Many families worse off than ours cannot pay at all.

FCC To Finally Rule On Cost of Prison Phone Calls This Friday

by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

Losing that human interaction with the people on the outside about whom you care and who care about you is a major contributing factor to the de-socialization of prisoners. In the absence of connections to the outside, close confinement in prison, where our society houses many of its mentally ill, is far more likely to make you crazy, or at least anti-social. Losing touch with one's family and loved ones significantly decreases a former prisoner's chances of maintaining healthy relationships and families, and contributing to stable, viable communities.  For those of us in the zipcodes from which most of the prison population comes from and returns to, it's a lose-lose situation.

It doesn't have to be this way.  As an information technologist I can assure you that there are absolutely no technical reasons for the absurdly high price of phone calls between prisoners and their friends and families.

The high cost of prison phone calls is entirely due to the greed of a handful of well-connected corporations like Global Tel-Link, whose well-placed campaign contributions have given them monopoly contracts on calls coming out of prisons and jails, with the freedom to set prices high enough to pay for the service, the campaign contributions, the over and under the table kickbacks, and obscene profit margins when it's all over.  But it's all good, in the neoliberal prison state of 21st century America because it's not the public that pays, it's the families of prisoners. According to a 2012 Bloomberg News article,

"The market is dominated by two private equity-backed companies, Global Tel*Link Corp. and Securus Technologies Inc...

"The companies bid for exclusive contracts to provide telephone service, agreeing to pay as much as two-thirds of calling charges to government or private prison operators. Those commissions can drive fees to levels that make it difficult for prisoners to maintain contact with spouses, children and parents. "

It's OK for corporations to utilize government to extract this unfair tax from the families of prisoners.  After all, in the social calculus of neoliberal America, including parts of black America, the families of prisoners are scarcely more worthy of concern than prisoners themselves. 

This Friday, after more than a decade of agitation, and more than five full years into the supposedly progressive Obama administration, the FCC finally gets around to taking its first vote on whether and to what extent the FCC ought to intervene to lower the cost of phone calls from prison. There are ideologues who claim that what's needed is not price fixing but competition. They are deeply mistaken at best, liars at worst. If “competition” does not result in lower prices, it's meaningless.

State governments, which already have platoons of contract and in-house IT professionals at hand, could implement low-cost phone service out of prisons in a matter of days. Tech companies like the ones I am part of could also provide services a fraction of what Global Tel Link, the nation's biggest provider of prison phone services charges, if only we were allowed to.

For those of you on Twitter, beginning at 11AM EST this Friday, August 9, join the good people at www.phonejustice.org as they conduct a live Twitter party watching the FCC ruling, which is expected to go somewhere in the direction of lowering the cost of phone calls from prisons across the country. And let's all do we can to maintain contact with our friends and loved ones behind prison walls. Remember, they're coming out eventually. If we want them to fit in, if we want to be worthy of fitting in with them, we must put and to keep our arms around our families and loved ones behind those walls.

Maybe next, the FCC should examine the similar scams that companies like J-Pay run to extract exorbitant fees from the few dollars families are able to send online and via telephone to their loved ones on the inside. But then again, it only affects the families of prisoners, so in much of liberal America, black and white, it's all good.

Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and a member of the state committee of the Georgia Green Party, living and working in Marietta GA. Contact him via this site's contact page, or at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.


Prison phone calls....FCC to rule

Flabbergasted!!  Nothing can prepare you for receiving the sort of monstrous phone bills one receives, UNexpectedly, without warning or preparation.  In 2005 when a dear friend was sent to prison we acted as a 'go between' for his wife who had to move due to husband's loss of their business when he was sent off.  Once /wk Mik would call us to let us  know how things were progressing in El Paso, 5 hours south of us, whilst his wife was struggling to feed herself and their child 1 hour north of us. We thought it was no big thang to keep a running log and accept the collect call from him...but a month after he was released..we received a bill for almost $1400.  for the two months ---weekly calls cut off at 15 minutes @ $17/for the first minute!! El Paso is in Texas but had it been in Singapore it would have been less expensive...but you see that was when an Irving Texas buddy of Bush got the contract to "provide" telecommunciations for inmates.  

I was livid...and called Irving texas corp.  The 'customer service agent' was very understanding and offered me the assurances like: "if you think  your bill is extreme most people have MUCH higher bills....$3000/Month is not unusal, she told me!!  she cut it way back...and I ended up paying "only" about $200 for all the calls....However, the state PUC (public utility corp) would not help me because they said "that's telecomm not "utility" and we have no control over the wires between Texas and New Mexico!   What of all the families who are desperately poor? I asked the phone corp rep "What do desperate families do?"...and her solution was to tell me to buy a prepaid phone and then throw it away!  I attended a local town meeting to register a complaint after learning the painful ORWELLIAN reality...I learned from Center for Constitional  Response, that EACH state would have to fight this issue one by one, since the Fed was not going to step in an weigh the issues on behalf of their constituents...that was in 2005!  I tried to motivate elected officials in the NM state legislature...but no luck....So this is a trulyl great sign of change and progress!   thank you Bruce for reporting on this awful situation.  Imagine PROFITING on the backs of incarcerated and their loved ones..!!?

Extortionist phone rates

Sanda, who posts here as Sanda or NYC artist, and I had the same prisoner/penpal.  I believe our friend, S, used to call us both occasionally.

I don't remember the exact numbers, but S's calls were limited to ten or fifteen minutes, and the charge for the call was exorbitant--larger than the rest of the phone bill.  The cost didn't amount to the $90.00 Bruce mentions, but it was excessive.  I accepted one call a month because S didn't have many friends or relatives who could afford these calls.  He often asked me to communicate with family members for him.

I used to ask S if there were any way of getting around these criminal rates, but he assured me there was not.  I could not call him.  Prisoners are not offered a choice of phone plans.

Normally, I am opposed to the death penalty.  But I;d gladly shoot a few of the CEOs of these phone companies myself. 

What a disgrace!

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