By Artika R. Tyner
Martha Wright is an 87-year-old grandmother and a retired nurse. When her grandson, Ulandis Forte, went to prison in 1994, she was determined to keep in touch. Wright knew her grandson had made a mistake, but she did not want him to feel abandoned. More than grandmother’s intuition, research also shows that prisoners who maintain family connections are much less likely to re-offend, breaking the crime cycle.
When Ulandis was moved to a facility in Arizona, thousands of miles away from his grandmother’s home in the District of Columbia, collect telephone calls were their only means of maintaining a relationship. She was spending nearly $1,000 per year of her fixed-income on phone calls limited to 15 minutes or less.
This past Mother’s Day, there were thousands of mothers and grandmothers in Minnesota who couldn’t speak to their loved ones because of the excessive costs of making a phone call from prison. Even worse, there are over 15,000 children in the state of Minnesota who have a parent in prison. For these children, keeping in touch with their parent means paying more than $17 for just a 15-minute collect phone call. This cost is 24 times that of a normal call, according to the Center for Media Justice.
Calls made from prison, which are most often made collect and paid for by inmates’ families, are so expensive because 60 percent of costs go toward commissions for corporations and prison agencies, according to Prison Legal News. Telecom companies pay for exclusive contracts at prisons and then pass on this fee to inmates’ families. Across the country, these high commission rates allow corporations to pocket $152 million a year off struggling families. In Minnesota, state prisons receive 49 percent commissions on phone calls made from prisons, which generate about $1.5 million in revenue each year.
Ten years ago, Wright finally reached her breaking point and decided to take action. After attempting to fight these predatory practices through the court system, she filed a petition in 2003 with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). A decade later, it is still cheaper to call Singapore than to speak to someone in a U.S. prison.
Only recently has the FCC shown signs of progress. Last year, the agency began the process of proposing new rules to regulate this lucrative industry, and in April, it finished collecting public comments. The FCC commissioners must now decide whether the financial hardship families bear to keep in touch with incarcerated loved ones is reasonable in light of the unfettered business practices that make it possible.
Prison phone calls do not have to cost this much; rates are not based on the actual cost of phone services. While 85 percent of state prisons receive commissions from telephone providers, states that have banned commissions have seen prison phone prices drop by 30-80 percent, according to the Center for Media Justice.
Minnesota cannot continue to bear the burden of these predatory practices either, not just financially, but also because of the toll on our communities. Maintaining healthy connections with the outside world and strong bonds with loved ones is critical for prisoners’ mental and emotional stability and reduces the likelihood of repeat offenses. This is especially important since the average annual cost per inmate in Minnesota is $41,364 (Vera Institute for Justice). Studies have shown that maintaining contact with an outside support system, such as loved ones and family members, decreases the likelihood of recidivism for prisoners. These contacts help prisoners successfully reintegrate into society by meeting their basic needs, such as securing shelter, and strengthening their community connections. Phone calls are one of the most accessible ways for families to remain connected.
The FCC has had long enough to fix this unfair situation; Minnesota’s congressional representatives must insist that the agency adopt final rules by the end of the year.
Interim FCC Chairman Mignon Clyburn has been a vocal advocate around this issue, saying recently in a speech that the higher phone rates are resulting in ”further isolation” and “broken families.” Clyburn and Chairman Nominee Tom Wheeler must prioritize the interests of families over padding corporate profits. This is essential for the promotion of strong families and safe communities.
Dr. Artika R. Tyner is a faculty member of the Clinical Law for Community Justice Project.