Reform Phone Rates for Inmates' Families

Your Take: An FCC vote to reduce predatory prices would make it easier for prisoners to successfully re-enter society.

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Mignon Clyburn testifying before Senate committee in March 2013 (T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images)

(Special to The Root) -- After more than 10 years of advocacy, the Federal Communications Commission is finally going to take a stand on the predatory phone rates charged to the families of prisoners.

On Friday the FCC will vote on a proposal to reform these rates. The details of the order are not yet known, but the fact that this long-overdue vote is happening at all is a welcome sign of meaningful change in our disastrous criminal-justice system.

Nearly 3 million children in the United States have a parent in prison. An hourlong phone call for these children to speak with their parents can cost more than $60. To put this in perspective, it's cheaper to call Singapore from any residence in the U.S. than to speak to someone in a prison right here at home.

These predatory rates further dim the prospects of prisoners successfully re-entering society. By placing such a steep cost on maintaining relationships with friends and family, phone companies and prisons are complicit in exacerbating recidivism, undermining rehabilitation and damaging job and housing prospects for former inmates.

Prison phone calls do not have to cost this much; rates are not based on the actual cost of services. These calls are so expensive because phone companies give kickbacks of up to 60 percent to prisons for exclusive contracts and then pass this fee on to inmates' families.

These high commission rates and kickbacks allow corporations to pocket $152 million a year off struggling families, some who even have to choose between talking to an incarcerated parent, child or loved one and paying for necessities like food and medicine.

A sound moral compass dictates that we should not create policies that undermine family bonds. And sound public policy dictates that we should take steps to reduce recidivism and future crime. Capping the cost of long-distance prison phone rates satisfies both priorities.

It was more than a decade ago that Martha Wright, the grandmother of an inmate, first petitioned the FCC to end these predatory practices. Wright's grandson was imprisoned thousands of miles away from her Washington, D.C., home, and keeping in touch with him became a financial hardship.

Since then, the commission has made only baby steps to move the issue along. It was only this summer, when Commissioner Mignon Clyburn became the acting chair of the FCC, that any real movement was made to give relief to these families and reduce recidivism.

Clyburn has been a vocal advocate for these families, saying that "connecting husbands to wives, parents to children and grandparents to grandchildren should be a national priority." But she is only acting chairwoman, with a narrow window of opportunity to make progress on this issue.