The Congressional Black Caucus pressed the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday to move swiftly to cut the costs that prison inmates and their families are paying for phone calls, an issue that has been tied up with the regulatory panel for a decade.
Caucus members said the rates can be nearly $4 per call, with up to an additional 55 cents a minute for long distance calls. They said the high phone rates disproportionately impact African Americans and Hispanics who make up more than 60 percent of the incarcerated.
"Frequently these kinds of fees force many families to make difficult decisions on whether to forgo contact with their family or loved ones because the cost becomes prohibitive," said Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, at a news conference Wednesday.
The Federal Communications Commission has finished collecting public comment on phone services provided for inmates. It must decide whether the charges to inmates are just and reasonable. It also is reviewing the practice of prisons giving companies exclusive contracts and private prisons limiting inmates to making collect calls.
The comment period on proposed regulations of inmate phone services ended in April. The FCC is reviewing the comments, which will be used to draft new rules, said FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield. Commissioners will discuss, negotiate and edit the rules and eventually vote on them, Wigfield said. He did not know when that vote would happen.
In a proposal published in the Federal Register in January, the FCC said inmate calls are usually limited to collect calls or to calls from pay phones. The cost of those calls are charged to the inmates.
Usually a call comes with two charges that vary widely, the FCC said. The per call charge can range from 50 cents to $3.95, with any additional per minute charges ranging from 5 cents to 89 cents, the FCC said.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, the delegate who represents Washington, D.C., in Congress said the caucus is pressing the FCC to regulate interstate and intrastate calls.
Wigfield said the FCC only regulates interstate calling, but Norton said the caucus believes the law allows it to do both. She said most of the calls would be left unaddressed if intrastate calls are not regulated too.
The caucus also wants the FCC to eliminate per call charges — a charge for using the phone — and consider a per-minute rate cap.
"If you cut off communication, most of that would have to be family communication between an inmate and family support. He's going to come out of jail with nothing and with no hope. And we see what happens when that occurs," Norton said.
The FCC's focus on the prison phone rates has drawn the attention of FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who is in her second term on the commission. In a speech last December to a conference on Telecommunications Policy and Regulation, she said the higher phone rates are resulting in "further isolation, fewer outside connections and broken families," according to a written copy of her remarks.
Ulandis Forte, who attended Wednesday's news conference, said his grandmother's phone calls were his lifeline while he served an 18-year sentence in various prisons that ended 10 months ago. He declined to say why he was incarcerated.
"It was everything. That's what I looked forward to. It was my support system. She gave me support. She gave me love," said Forte, 39. He said he found a job nine days after leaving prison and continues to hold a job today, in construction.
Forte said he takes full responsibility for ending up in prison. But he said it was unjust that his grandmother, now 87, had to pay such high phone bills.
"She's the one who had to pick up the phone and fight with, you know, can she afford to talk to me," Forte said, fighting back tears.
Forte's grandmother, Martha Wright, filed a petition in 2003 with the Federal Communications Commission over the phone rates. She filed a second petition in 2007.
"I do wish the people would be able to fix it so Christmas, Valentine and Mother's Days the boys and girls would be able to have a call, a free call because a lot of them don't have money to call their parents," said Wright, who sat in a wheelchair at the news conference. She said when she tried to call her grandson to tell him his mother had died, she couldn't get through to him for several days.
Her two petitions followed a class-action lawsuit she filed in 2000 with inmates and former inmates of Corrections Corporation of America against the private prison company regarding phone services and the charges. The U.S District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the suit and directed those involved to petition the Federal Communications Commission.
Follow Suzanne Gamboa on Twitter: https://twitter.com/APsgamboa .