The Campaign for Prison Phone Justice is a national effort challenging prison phone kickbacks and the U.S. Prison Telephone Industry. The campaign is jointly led by: Media Action Grassroots Network, Working Narratives, Prison Legal News and Participant Media as part of the social action campaign for Ava Duvernay's film Middle of Nowhere.
As the crowd chanted, "Fair rates! Now!" I felt warm despite the breeze that whipped through the courtyard outside the Federal Communications Office in Washington, DC. Around 75 people gathered from across state lines and political beliefs to rally for "Strong Families, Safe Communities." Put another way, we were all standing in person to urge the FCC to lower the cost of prison phone calls by taking action on the Wright Petition.
The rally was a mix of inspiration, encouragement, celebration and truth telling. On both ends of the rally, religious leaders led us in faithful call for an end to policies that victimize poor families. The crowd also joined the lovely-voiced singer Kenyatta Hardison in uplifting songs to open and close the gathering.
It was incredible to hear the remarks of prison phone justice ally, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. She announced to the excited crowd that the FCC has, at last, decided to circulate a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the Wright Petition – this is bringing us a step closer to victory in the fight to end the high cost of interstate prison phone calls.
And it was wonderful to see people from Some Of Us, the Prison Policy Initiative, Participant Media and the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice submit pages filled with 40,000 signatures from people in support of the Wright Petition. There’s no denying it when you see four huge binders brimming with paper: the voices of prisoners, their families and allies are speaking loud and clear. I also learned today that many of the people who signed onto the petition were not directly touched by incarceration but were compelled to support phone justice as a human rights issue.
As fantastic as it is to hear the remarks from policy makers and elected officials at an event like this, the most important thing to me is always hearing the stories of the people most impacted by the injustice that we are fighting to change – in this case, prisoners, former prisoners and their families. Lillie Branch-Kennedy shared that she and her husband spent literally $10,000 in phone calls with their son during the first four years of his incarceration. They estimate that the total is now around $25,000. Keith DeBlasio also shared the exorbitant fees that his mother had to pay to talk to him while he was in prison and stressed the positive impact lowering the cost of calls would have on communities by lowering recidivism.
The message at the Strong Families, Safe Communities rally was clear: we can come together across our differences to fight for fair phone rates for prisoners and their loved ones. The predatory, dehumanizing system of exorbitant rates and kickbacks has to stop. We also stood together in conveying a message of thanks for our allies at the FCC, the people and organizations on the ground fighting for prison phone justice, and all the people that came before us.
Mel Motel works as a researcher, paralegal, and sometimes writer at the Human Rights Defense Center/Prison Legal News, a member of the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice; outside of the office, she is a high school educator and member of the Criminal Justice Initiative donor/activist circle.