Today, on July 4th as millions of Americans wave their flags and celebrate with barbecues, picnics, and family gatherings, millions of incarcerated people, detainees and their families continue to be stripped of their human dignity and basic right to adequate food, water, and right to communicate to their loved ones.
On July 1st, 50-100 prisoners in the Pelican Bay State Prison in California, started an indefinite hunger strike to end tortuous conditions. The hunger strike is organized by prisoners in this particular prison but it is an inspiring show of unity as criminal justice and media rights organizers, allies and groups from around the country show their support for these brave hunger strikers and their demands. The hunger strikers have developed these five core demands:
One of their major demands is around basic access to communications tools, phone access and right to cultural production:
- Allow a weekly phone call.
- More TV channels.
- Allow TV/Radio combinations, or TV and small battery operated radio
- Allow Hobby Craft Items – art paper, colored pens, small pieces of colored pencils, watercolors, chalk, etc.
Unfortunately, the inhumane conditions that these brave and resilient prison hunger strikers are protesting are not unique.
In this 21st century digital age, we would all agree that wireline or wireless phones are a vital part of our communication system and something many of us take for granted. Yet for prisoners, the homeless, immigrants and immigrant detainees, it’s a different story—phone calls are a privilege, not a right. Prisoners are increasingly incarcerated far from home and phones become the only way to stay in touch. People in prison may only call collect, and loved ones who accept the calls must accept the terms dictated by the chosen phone company. Families can be forced to spend hundreds of dollars on a weekly one-hour phone call, due to exorbitant rates set by the phone companies chosen to serve prisons. Typically, states receive kickback commissions from the phone companies. Unsurprisingly rates for such calls are well above market rates, as much as $6 per minute or more.
Despite that isolation and powerlessness that prisoners, detained immigrants and their families face, they are joining together with media justice organizers from around the country to demand an end to these kickbacks. Through tireless public education, community organizing, advocacy and coalition building, there have been some states that have lowered their rates, like in New York State.
Last week, at the 2011 Allied Media Conference in Detroit, MAG-Net organized the Prison Phone Justice: Exploring Communication Rights, Access and Power for Prisoners and Detainees panel that looked atstate and national efforts to change this. The panel featured audio, video, action research and case study tools used to educate and organize directly affected communities.
Speakers included Paul Wright of Prison Legal News who provided a broad overview of the problem, how phone carriers are paying kickbacks to states for exclusive contracts to service prison facilities.
Silky Shah of Detention Watch Network talked about the conditions and phone access issues that detainees and deportees face when they are held in detention centers, prisons and other facilities.
Then we heard from Reverend Edward Haggins of Matthew Prison Fellowship Association, Inc. in Ohio. Rev. Haggins, a longtime lawyer and advocate of prisoner rights talked about his nearly 30 years of work inside the Ohio States prison systems. He talked about the basic issue of phone access and the right for prisoners to connect to their loved ones as a critical issue for many.
Finally, Nick Szuberla of Thousand Kites wrapped up the panel with talking about the Prison Phone Justice Campaign, a national campaign challenging prison phone kickbacks and the U.S. Prison Telephone Industry. The Prison Phone Justice Campaign is led by Center for Media Justice, MAG-Net and Thousand Kites. Nick provided concrete opportunities for groups and individuals to take action and get involved.
However we chose to enjoy this “holiday” – whether it’s considered just day off from work, an opportunity to spend with our loved ones, or a time to protest this country’s human rights violations domestically and abroad; lets not forget about the courageous act of these Californian prisoners and so many other social justice fighters that continue this long legacy of oppressed-led resistance and movement building. Their struggle for human dignity and the right to communicate and connect is a part of larger global struggles for self-determination and liberation.