MMTC Honors Leaders in the Fight to Lower Prison Phone Rates at BBSJ Summit

by Kenneth Mallory on January 20, 2013

Commissioner Clyburn Martha Reed-Wright Maurita Coley and Ulandis Forte at BBSJ Awards - by Jason Miccolo Johnson“The cost of a single phone call from prison often exceeds the entire bill for one month of basic home [phone service],” remarked FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn at MMTC’s recent Broadband and Social Justice Summit Awards Reception. During the reception, MMTC honored four luminaries with Digital Media Social Justice Awards for their remarkable efforts to persuade the FCC to lower exorbitant phone rates that inmates at the nation’s prisons are forced to pay to call home to their families.

“This year’s inductees embody the spirit and perseverance that characterize digital pioneers.  I am pleased to recognize their collective efforts over the past ten years on raising the awareness [about] high prison phone rates and working diligently to change the system,” said Clyburn, who has been a vocal proponent of the issue. “Their work has been critical in bringing important issues to light at the local, state, and federal levels, and spurring the movement toward just and reasonable phone rates for incarcerated persons and their families. This issue is critical for those families separated by incarceration, who rely on the telephone primarily to stay in touch.”

The awardees were private citizen and author of an FCC petition to regulate prison phone rates Martha Wright-Reed; writer, director, and Sundance Award-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay; the Prison Phone Rates Collaborative; and the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice.

Each awardee has a unique stake in the issue.  For instance, the Prison Phone Rates Collaborative and the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice – made up of several organizations, including the Asian American Justice Center and Center for Media Justice – have participated in coalition-building efforts and raised awareness about high prison phone rates.  Wright-Reed struggled to communicate with her grandson, Ulandis Forte, while he was incarcerated because of what she held was an incredibly high cost to call him.  DuVernay’s film, the “Middle of Nowhere,” references the issue, and won her the Best Director Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival Awards.

As BBSJ noted in a post several weeks ago, many American “families pay exorbitant phone rates for less than 30 minutes per phone conversation. It can cost families more than $18 for a fifteen-minute phone call with an incarcerated loved one. Speaking once a week for one hour can cost over $280 a month, according to and other civil liberties groups that are pushing for FCC action to reduce rates on interstate prison phone calls.”

Clyburn noted that recently, the FCC “adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to consider lowering state long distance rates from correctional facilities.”

The awardees spoke of how important they believed the issue was and its implications for American families.

Wright-Reed said she hoped her petition would “work and will help a lot of males and females who don’t have families and money to pay.”  She also said that she hoped regulators would allow families to make free calls on Mother’s Day and Christmas.

Cheryl Leanza, advisor to The Prison Phone Rates Collaborative, accepted the award on its behalf.   Leanza spoke of some of the unfortunate effects of high prison phone rates.

“Prison phone rates are unjust,” she said. “They contribute to higher recidivism rates.… They decrease chances of successful reentry, and as a consequence, these phone rates are part of the structure that makes society less safe.”

Leanza also reminded awards reception attendees that there was a long road ahead to achieving justice by lowering prison phone rates.

“You all have an opportunity to green-light the Commission moving forward. You have an opportunity to be part of the solution,” said Leanza. “This issue is not the time to stand on principle, to have an argument about who has authority and who doesn’t, what’s right and what’s wrong in terms of your broader objective; now is a time to find a way come to the table and figure out how this moves forward.”

  • Kenneth Mallory is an award-winning journalist and attorney who has freelanced for several publications, in addition to serving as a general assignment reporter for the Washington Afro-American Newspaper. He earned his B.A. magna cum laude from University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in addition to his J.D. from Northwestern University School of Law.

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