FCC Takes Action on the Wright Petition for Fair Prison Phone Rates

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On December 26, 2012, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) finally acknowledged the exorbitant cost of phone calls for prisoners and immigrants detained across the U.S. and their families. The FCC released a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on the Wright Petition, an appeal to the FCC that has been ignored for the last ten years.

Filed in 2003, the Wright Petition for rulemaking calls upon the FCC to cap all inter-state inmate calling services at no higher than $0.20 per minute for debit calling and $0.25 per minute for collect calling. The FCC sought comment on the petition in 2007, but there was little movement, until this year. The recent movement is energized by the organizing efforts of the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice and FCC Commissioner Clyburn’s public announcement of her support of the Wright Petition in September of 2012.

At a November 15th rally outside the FCC, organized by the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn reiterated her support for the Wright Petition. She announced that FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski would circulate a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on the Wright Petition for a vote. Over the next few months, the FCC will receive public comments as they determine how to regulate interstate prison phone calls, with an official vote of the FCC on this issue pending.

Following the November 15th rally, Nebraska, Louisiana, and Cook County, Illinois are all taking matters into their own hands, pursuing steps to lower the rates for inmate telephone calls at the local and state levels. 

State prison systems make $362 million in annual gross revenue because of exclusive contracts between the prisons and private phone corporations that provide what are essentially kickbacks to state and local governments. These payments inflate the cost of the calls by upward of 42 percent nationwide, according to Prison Legal News (PLN). This $362 million that the state prison systems rake in annually does not include the revenue generated from similar contracts between local county governments and jails that contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold immigrants in detention and telecommunication companies, which also subject immigrants in detention and their families to high phone rates.

According to a recent article in the Washington Post, Maryland state prisons contract exclusively with the telecommunication giant Securus in exchange for lucrative commission payments paid to the state of Maryland. Local calls from prisons in Maryland cost 85 cents, intrastate calls cost $2.55 plus 30 cents per minute and interstate calls cost $2.70 plus 30 cents per minute. Commission payments to the state of Maryland are up to 60 percent of the price of phone calls, generating $5.2 million for Maryland in 2010.

Unfortunately, the FCC cannot ban commission payments, which are passed to those imprisoned and their families. However, 8 states nationwide have banned commission payments through legislation. In these states, the costs of calls from prison have dropped significantly. In Michigan, for example, rates fell from $3.99 plus 89 cents per minute to a flat rate of about 15 cents per minute after commissions were banned in 2008, according to data from PLN. Similarly, prison phone rates in New York dropped by almost 69% when the state banned commission payments in 2008.  California enacted S.B. 81 during the 2007-2008 session, which prohibited and phased out commission payments reducing the cost of calls from prison by 61%, according to PLN.  

It is clear that the state legislative bans on commission payments in the state prison systems have resulted in greatly reduced calling rates.  However, such state legislation has not banned commission payments to local governments.  As a result, county jails across the country that contract with ICE to hold immigrants in detention can enter into lucrative contracts with prison phone corporations and charge immigrants in detention exorbitant calling rates.  

Although the FCC cannot ban commission payments to local and state governments from telecommunication companies they contract with, the FCC can regulate and cap the cost of interstate or long distance phone rates from state prisons, county jails, and detention centers across the country, protecting both state prisoners and immigrants who are detained by ICE.

Hundreds of families submitted letters of support urging the FCC to act on the Wright Petition. These letters are part of the broader Campaign for Prison Phone Justice. Without this increased and concerted public pressure, it is doubtful that the FCC would have acted on the Wright Petition. During the coming months, the FCC will be reviewing a wide array of stakeholder input, in order to act fairly on this issue.

CIVIC urges individuals and families who have been affected by the high price of phone calls from the immigration detention system to submit letters of support for the Wright Petition to the FCC. It is important that the FCC recognize that the power to regulate interstate call rates has the potential to protect immigrants in detention as well as state prisoners. Stories of the hardship that immigrants in detention and their families must endure due to the high cost of phone calls are an important contribution to the FCC docket, as they educate commissioners about the dire consequences such costs have on the ability of families to remain in contact.

In the end, it is a question of value. If we, as a society, recognize and value the right of families to maintain contact with one another, over and above the right of corporations to make a profit, then the FCC must act to protect our family values. If you would like to submit a letter of support for the Wright Petition to the FCC, please contact Christina Mansfield, cmansfield@endisolation.org.