The fight for prison phone justice continues

    After scoring a victory with the capping of rates for interstate phone calls from prison, activists are fighting to extend those regulations to all calls.
    (Campaign for Prison Phone Justice)
    (Campaign for Prison Phone Justice)

    “This is Global Tel-Link,” chirps the mechanical female voice when I pick up the phone. “You have a pre-paid call from —-. To accept this call, say or press five now.” The phone beeps.

    This is the call I’ve been waiting for. I’m working on an article about women imprisoned for failing to protect their children from their abusive partners. One of the women is locked away in a far-away state prison. Because I’m on a deadline, we’ve agreed that it’s quickest if she simply calls me rather than write me a letter which, while enabling her to not rush her life story into 15-minute increments, would take much longer.

    I’d set up my account with Global Tel-Link in April, while working on a different article involving people in prison. Global Tel-Link is one of the private companies that contracts with jails and prisons nationwide to provide telephone services. It has contracts with 27 state prison systems, 800 county jails and the federal Bureau of Prisons. Family members with loved ones in any of these systems must set up an account with Global Tel-Link and put money into the account before they can begin receiving calls.

    In April, I deposited $27 into my new account and waited for phone calls. None ever came. “That’s okay,” I thought. “Eventually I’ll work on another story where someone needs to call me and my account will be used then.” A few months later, however, I received a letter stating that since my account had been inactive, I had the option of canceling it and receiving a full refund. If I didn’t cancel it and it remained inactive for another 180 days, my account would automatically be canceled and I would receive no refund.

    So I called, got a live human being, and cancelled my account. The $27 that I had deposited would be put back on my credit card, I was told. I didn’t think anything more about it.

    Fast forward to November. I’ve just started working on this latest story and realize that I need to receive phone calls from someone in a prison system across the country. I go on-line to reactivate my account and find that, contrary to what I’ve been told, my account is still open, active and has $27 on it. I tell the loved one of the person inside prison to go ahead and call me.

    On Monday morning, I get my first call. But after the mechanical woman announces that I have a prepaid call from prison, she informs me that I have insufficient funds in my account to accept the call. She gives me the option of depositing funds right then, so I dig in my wallet from the bottom of my bag, pull out my credit card and put $20 on my account — a process involving lots of number punching and that took six minutes. By the time I had finished, the person calling had hung up.

    Curious about why I’d been told I had insufficient funds when, a week earlier I had $27, I logged onto my account and checked the statement. According to their records, my account had been closed and a refund had been issued to my credit card a few days before.

    When the phone rang again, I jumped on it, grabbing my pen, notebook and list of questions. “This is Global Tel-Link,” chirped the eternally-bright voice. But once again, she tells me that I have insufficient funds in my account.

    Does a call from a prison in California to a cell phone in New York City really cost more than $20? Not wanting to lose a second opportunity to talk, I dig out my credit card and put another $5 on my account. But once again, during the six minutes it takes me to punch in my credit card number, expiration date, security code, zip code and other numbers, the person has hung up.

    Frustrated, I spend another five minutes on the Global Tel-Link site searching for a phone number. I finally find one and call. After several minutes, in which a mechanical voice gives me the option of adding more money to my account, I finally get a live person. I explain the problem to her and she looks up my record. She explains that, when I requested a refund in July, a block was put on my phone number even though a refund has yet to land in my account. She would go ahead and remove that block and I should be able to get calls now. She did not explain nor did I think to ask why the live person didn’t warn me about this back in July.

    My experience isn’t unique. I’ve spoken informally to other family members who have gone through similar processes while trying to receive calls from their loved ones. I can’t imagine the aggravation of having to go through this when it’s a loved one on the other line, much less if a child is waiting eagerly to speak to mommy or daddy as you try to navigate the phone payment process.

    Now, some family members no longer have to worry about being gouged for the price of these 15-minute calls. In summer 2013, the FCC passed an order capping the cost of interstate prison phone calls.

    That order, however, didn’t come from out of the blue. It began in 2003 with Martha Wright, a woman whose grandson had been sent to prison. Wright, who was in her 80s, had difficulty visiting her grandson, as he was transferred to various out-of-state prisons. Because she is blind, letter-writing was not an option. Thus, the only way for them to stay in contact was by phone. But the costs were exorbitant, prompting Wright to file a petition asking the FCC to regulate the cost of prison phone calls. Other family members, formerly incarcerated people and advocates joined the fight, which became known as the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice.

    It took 10 years, but their efforts are paying off. On August 9, 2013, the FCC held a public hearing. After listening to testimony by Bethany Frazier, a mother of two whose husband is incarcerated, the FCC voted two to one to cap interstate phone rates at 21 cents a minute for debit or prepaid calls and 25 cents a minute for collect calls. (That victory means that a 15-minute call from a California prison now costs $3.15 plus an additional 64 cents in taxes. Before that, I might have been paying up to $17 for that same call.) However, the FCC did not set a cap on in-state phone calls, which make up the majority of calls from jails and prisons.

    But family members and advocates continued to press and, again, their organizing is beginning to see the start of change. Last month, through its Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the FCC announced that it is considering extending the regulations and price caps on interstate calls to all calls, including calls within the state; further restricting telephone companies from making kickback payments to prisons and jails, which drive up the cost of phone calls; and fully addressing the additional charges for opening, maintaining, funding and closing accounts — charges which they estimate at an additional $400 million each year.

    These regulations won’t necessarily make the experience of putting money on a phone account any quicker, easier or more user-friendly. But, if extended, it means that prison phone companies will no longer be able to gouge families for the service. And family members like Martha Wright and Bethany Frazier will no longer have to choose between exorbitant phone costs or losing touch with their loved ones.

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