FCC Urged to Lower Phone Rates for Prison Inmates

March 10, 2004

For Immediate Release
Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Contact Information:
Natalia Kennedy, 212 998-6736

Families of prisoners report hardships caused by exorbitant rates, collect call restrictions; filing alleges phone company kickbacks to local prison administrators

New York, NY—A filing today with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) asks the agency to examine the harm caused by high phone rates charged to people in prison, and criticizes the relationships between prison administrators and commercial phone companies that give rise to the unusually high rates.

The filing asks the FCC to take two primary steps to remedy this problem: One, require that private prisons replace exclusive telephone service contracts with contracts allowing people in prison to select one of several telephone companies to carry their long distance calls. And two, eliminate the most damaging barriers to phone communication faced by prisoners; for instance, by supplementing the collect call option with phone cards.

The filing was submitted by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law on behalf of a broad coalition of 60 people and organizations affected by the high cost of collect calls from prison. The Ad Hoc Coalition for the Right to Communicate includes religious leaders, educators, social service agencies, and attorneys who seek to communicate regularly with those behind bars.

The phone is the best way-often the only way- to communicate with my son, says Janie Canino, whose son is incarcerated in Louisiana. With the high phone bills, its a struggle to keep food on the table and pay the phone bill. We need lower phone rates to help keep our families connected.

Todays filing supports a petition filed with the FCC in November by Martha Wright and 20 others who either are incarcerated or regularly receive phone calls from incarcerated people. The Wright petition argues that, by replacing exclusive phone service contracts with competitively bid contracts, people in prison will benefit from lower chargers and an increased number of service options. The Wright petition documents that the nations private prisons are receiving very large commissions from the long distance carriers that obtain exclusive contracts. These carriers recover the commissions paid to the prisons through the high collect call rates charged to prisoners.

People who are incarcerated in private prisons are often housed outside of their home states or in remote areas. According to the filing, Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison company, incarcerates over 6,000 people in prisons outside of their home states. For example, more than 1,200 Hawaiians are incarcerated in Corrections Corporation of America prisons in Oklahoma and Arizona.

Communication is essential between lawyers and their clients, says Richard Crane, criminal defense attorney and former Vice President of Legal Affairs at the Corrections Corporation of America. High phone costs and poor service negatively impacts an inmates ability obtain legal services who are often in remote locations. The phone is used as a money-making scheme for prison service contractors and not for keeping attorneys and families connected.

The financial burden to keep in touch with loved ones hits low- income families the hardest who often can not afford to pay the exorbitant service connection fees. Collect call restrictions pose barriers as well, not allowing people in prison to leave messages or connect to cell phones. There is also a high human cost of those behind bars with no connection from their loved ones in the community. Studies have shown that telephone usage and other contacts with family contribute to inmate morale and connection to the community.

Studies have shown that prisoners who are able to maintain strong family ties have higher rates of post release success, says Dr. Creasie Finney Hairston, Dean of the Jane Addams College of Social Work. By removing the outrageous financial costs for families to keep in touch, we can lower recidivism and build stronger families.

For additional information regarding access to justice issues and indigent defense, please visit the Center’s Indigent Defense webpage.