In prison lingo, sending a letter from behind bars is called "flying a kite." For many inmates, flying kites is the only affordable way to keep in touch with friends and family because making phone calls to and from prison - and actually hearing a loved one's voice - is far more expensive.
Lately, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski has seen a lot of kites flying his way, and he's learning just how expensive phone calls from prison can be. That's because members of Congress and civil rights activists are joining prison inmates and their families in putting mounting pressure on the FCC to reign in monopolized prison phone services that routinely gouge prisoners and the people who can support them in becoming productive members of society.
Phone companies charge rates so high - as much as $15 for 15 minutes in some states - that many of America's roughly 2.3 million inmates and their families, who are often already struggling economically, simply cannot afford to stay in touch. This isn't just bad for inmates and struggling families; it's bad for society. Both Congress and the Federal Bureau of Prisons have recognized that allowing inmates to communicate with their children and family reduces recidivism rates and promotes personal development.
But don't take it from the policymakers. Consider Robert C. King Jr., an inmate at a state prison in Pennsylvania and one of roughly 140 inmates from across the country who recently wrote the FCC:
The phone company is taking an unfair advantage of a captive audience, giving us no other option but to use their product, and charging exorbitant rates ... If prisoners do not communicate with family and their communities they will sever the ties they have to them. When they no longer share a common thread and concern for their issues they tend to sympathize LESS with them. And less sympathy translates into a wide array of social issues. Prisoners need to be reconnected to society and their social responsibilities.
In his letter, King reports that it costs him $10 for a 15-minute phone call to his sister in Florida, and more than $5 to make a $15-minute call to nearby Pittsburgh. His wife has spent thousands of dollars to keep in touch with him during his 21 years behind bars and has been subject to hidden fees. At the very least, King wrote, those on the outside who can help prisoners re-enter society, such as friends, families and social workers, should not be subject to such high costs:
If not for the incarcerated citizens ... who are striving to regain "Citizen in Good Standing" status, then do it for the tens of thousands of tax paying citizens who truly rehabilitate prisoners with their spiritual, emotional, and financial support. Those citizens, like my wife, who hold us accountable and encourage us to be productive citizens.
So, why do inmates and their friends and families pay so much? A 2011 investigation by Prison Legal News revealed that, in most states, prison phone service providers offer lucrative kickbacks to state contracting agencies to secure exclusive, monopolistic contracts at prisons. On average, 42 percent of the revenue from prison phone calls goes to pay for these kickbacks, which are officially called "commissions."
Corporate consolidation has also played a role, and now 90 percent of incarcerated Americans live in states with phone service that is exclusively controlled by Global Tel*Link, Securus Technologies, or CenturyLink, according to a Prison Policy Initiative report released this month.
The costs of the kickbacks transferred to prisoners and their families vary wildly from state to state, according to the report. For example, a 15-minute long-distance phone call from Global Tel*Link that costs $2.36 in Massachusetts would cost more than $17 in Georgia. Reformers say these state-by-state inconsistencies require federal rules to level the playing field.
The FCC has had the chance to initiate steps toward ending the kickbacks and capping prison phone rates, but so far has failed to do so. In 2003, a petition was filed with the FCC on behalf of several prisoners and their families, including Martha Wright, an elderly woman with a grandson in prison. In a recent video, Wright said she has paid $100- to $200-phone bills and must often just hang up the phone when her grandson calls from prison because she doesn't have the money to pay for their conversation.
The petition, known as the Wright Petition, has languished on the FCC docket for nearly a decade, but may finally have its day in the sun - and potentially initiate an FCC rulemaking - as more and more kites land on Genachowski's desk.
Inmates are not the only ones asking the FCC to take action on the Wright Petition. Last week, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-California) and Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Illinois) wrote a joint letter requesting that the commission lower prison phone rates. Earlier this year, the FCC received a similar letter signed by a coalition of civil rights groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and conservative groups eager to show regulators that prison-phone-rate reform has support well beyond partisan and ideological lines.
"This does nothing to further the safety of civil society," said former American Conservative Union chairman David Keene of the high rates. "It does nothing to help rehabilitate those people who have been removed from that society as a result of criminal convictions. And in fact, it makes it less likely that these people will even be able to reintegrate themselves as useful citizens."
Earlier this month, a coalition of media and civil rights groups finally sat down with Genachowski to discuss moving forward with prison-phone-rate reform. Genachowski tweeted about the meeting, declaring that, "Prison phone rates serious issue for families, communities, security. FCC ... preparing next steps."
The FCC seems to be listening, but has yet to take action on the Wright Petition, and a coalition of prison-phone-justice groups continue to put pressure on regulators. You can learn more about the campaign and flying your own kites here.