When Martha Wright's grandson went to prison more than 20 years ago, she learned a stark lesson about the cost of maintaining ties with a family member who is incarcerated.
Beyond the isolation and deep wound of being separated from a loved one, there's also a very steep price to staying in touch. The children, parents, siblings, and grandparents of the incarcerated spend as much as $17 for a 15-minute phone call with their loved ones behind bars. And the people who benefit the most from maintaining connections are often those who can least afford the excessive price tag.
Wright lives in Washington, D.C., and that's where she resided when her grandson Ulandis Forte was sent to prison in Lorton, Virginia. Wright is partially blind, so traveling to see her grandson or writing a letter weren't realistic options. She had to rely on phone calls.
She soon noticed that her phone bill jumped from $50 to $75, and then to nearly $200. As someone living on a fixed income, Wright eventually had to reject some of the calls from her grandson just to avoid high bills. Imagine the pain of rejecting a phone call without the opportunity to explain the circumstances. Imagine the isolation that creates on both ends of the line.
So why are the Martha Wrights of the world paying so much for basic phone service? The answer is a monopoly system that has gone unchecked for far too long. The current structure allows prisons to solicit bids from multiple companies. You might presume that prisons would choose the lowest bid to contain costs. But the opposite is true.
In a complete distortion of free-market economics, the phone companies that secure contracts with prisons are often the ones that charge more than their competitors. Their high bids are artificially inflated beyond what it costs to provide service because they include a "commission" that goes directly back to the prison. As a result, consumers pay up to 60 percent more than the actual cost of service, according to research by the independent magazine Prison Legal News.
There's no state or federal oversight of these commissions, which is why Wright led a class action suit filed in 2000. In 2001, a judge referred the case to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), citing the agency's jurisdiction over the regulation of interstate telephone service. This referral became known as the Wright Petition, which seeks a restructuring of long-distance calling service for incarcerated people.
Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL) even introduced the Family Telephone Connection Protection Act in 2007 to create rules to regulate rates, but it didn't pass. He has remained committed to the cause and joined forces with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) to submit a letter to the FCC in September urging them to act. Lawmakers, organizations that span the political spectrum, and concerned members of the public have all criticized the agency's inaction to no avail. It is a true miscarriage of justice that the government has left the incarcerated and their families on hold for more than a decade.
Martha Wright's grandson is now a free man. But even though she no longer has to struggle with the unfair cost of prison phone calls, her commitment to the cause remains. She's inspiring a movement to bring justice to families who desire simple fairness.
Mignon Clyburn, an FCC commissioner, recently said she was proud to stand with Wright in her fight for those "who remain desperate to hear the voices of their incarcerated loved ones on a regular basis." Now it's time for the rest of the FCC commissioners to hear this call and pass the Wright Petition. Justice has been delayed for far too long.
Chancellar Williams is the government and external affairs manager for Free Press, a non-profit organization advocating for universal and affordable Internet access, diverse media ownership, vibrant public media, and quality journalism.