“We wish to plead our case. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly.”
– ‘Freedom’s Journal’, March 16, 1827
Earlier today, members of the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net) and the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice met with Commissioners and staff at the FCC. But unlike most policy meetings, this meeting included a Sundance award winning movie screening—and a historic conversation.
The first part of the meeting included a screening of Ava DuVernay’s film, Middle of Nowhere. Set to release on Oct. 12th, the film “chronicles a woman’s separation from her incarcerated husband, revealing the challenges faced by families in staying connected to loved ones in prison and the effect on both parties.” Lindsay Guetschow–from Participant Media–was present to talk about their social action partnership with MAG-Net which includes launching The Wright to Call Home website.
The second part of the meeting featured what can only be called a “historic” conversation. Gathered on the 8th floor–Mrs. Martha Wright, her grandson Mr. Ulandis Forte and Mr. Jackie Lucas–three named plaintiffs from Martha Wright vs. Corrections Corporation of America–shared their personal stories related to the Wright Petition (Docket 96-128) with the FCC. They were joined by Mrs. Viola Richardson (Lucas) who shared her perspective as a family member–but not a plaintiff– who was directly impacted.
For those of you who are wondering why I use the words “historic”, here is a quick rundown:
- In 2000 the DC Prisoners’ Project in collaboration with CURE, filed a case in federal court—Martha Wright vs. CCA–seeking to reduce the rates that prisoners’ families paid when they received collect calls
- In 2001, the District Court referred the case to the FCC for rulemaking, under the doctrine of ‘primary jurisdiction’
- In 2003 A Notice of Proposed Rulemaking was issued, but no action followed
- In 2007, an alternative rulemaking proposal was filed, but no action followed
Yes, March 2013 marks the 10th anniversary of the FCC petition—and today was the FIRST time these plaintiffs addressed the FCC in person.
Kleenex was passed around as each of the plaintiffs (now petitioners) spoke. Each of their testimonies was unique, powerful, and deeply moving. While there is no way the fullness of their statements can be appropriately captured in text, I am sharing some of the highlights:
“It hurt me that every call home meant a sacrifice my mother had to make. She went without so many things, to stay in touch with me.” -Mr. Lucas
“He’d call saying ‘we won’t talk but a minute’ but he had three kids to talk to, and me. Three kids plus Mom? Ten minutes goes fast, and we could barely afford that.” – Mrs. Richardson (Lucas)
“He had to call his Mother. If she didn’t hear from him, she’d end up at the doctor sick with worry or high blood pressure. He had to call her to keep her healthy.” -Mrs. Richardson (Lucas)
“My mother had to move in with my sister to pay the phone bills-$500 a month was normal.” -Mr. Lucas
“I’m 3 days away from 90 days out–after 18 years in. My grandmother is the greatest woman I have ever known. She kept in contact with me. I never thought I would be here, speaking to you all.” -Mr. Forte
“My grandmother has been blind for 17 years. How was I supposed to write to her? She needed to hire someone just to read the letters. When I called, we could only afford 2-3 minutes.” -Mr. Forte
“I’m 87 years old and still trying. He is my only and oldest grandson. I love him. I thank God for him (grandson). He found his way back home. The calls helped.” -Mrs. Wright
These testimonies highlight the burden that families bear to remain connected. While prices vary by state and prison, one short phone call can cost about $17–it’s a price that is well out of the reach of most people, but which guarantees a hefty profit margin for the prison phone companies who business model thrives off an incarceration nation.
Traveling for in-person visits is time-consuming and expensive–and usually unaffordable–so access to low-cost phone service options should be part of the connectivity equation. In fact, connecting parents, children, partners and relatives should be a national priority! Years ago theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.” Yet today, corporate profiteering at the expense of the healthy families guides our policy making–cloaked in language that suggests regulation is bad, the marketplace is best left untouched and big government will harm us all.
Marginalized by a narrative that hides structural racism, poverty and its relationship to disproportionate confinement, our communities are left to pay a regressive tax to “stay together.” The depravity of this system cannot be overlooked, it’s time to put people before profits and the FCC as the only agency with jurisdiction over long distance rates, is the correct venue to resolve this issue.