Fans of the popular Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black” saw a new co-star emerge in the recently released and notably feverish fifth season:
As the prisoners take control of the facility, they also retake a bounty of repossessed cellphones and hungrily use them to reconnect with the outside world.
It’s a subtle plot point that’s painfully relevant in real life.
The many good people working on phone justice reform know how essential connections to loved ones are for those behind prison walls. Many inmates describe telephones as lifelines, helping them to stay sane, to co-parent their children, and to secure future housing, which often is a requirement of probation.
Activists also know that the pricing system resembles highway robbery, with phone calls in some counties as high as $8 for the first minute. That price tag can leave loved ones, who often cover the costs, with the choice of keeping connected or paying their rent.
One recent study found that one in three families with an inmate goes into debt because of prison phone costs.
So recent news, largely buried, was sad for those families and sad for us, too, if we believe in justice, kindness and public safety.
After many years of progress to cut prison phone costs — much of it thanks to the Obama administration — a federal court this past month struck down regulations that cap those costs.
In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) exceeded its legal authority in 2015 when it created rate caps for all calls, whether collect or debit.
Artika Tyner, a Twin Cities lawyer who is active with the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, said the news left her feeling disappointed.
“This is personal to me on a day-to-day basis,” said Tyner, associate vice president of diversity and inclusion at the University of St. Thomas.
“Many people aren’t aware of the reality of the usury rates,” she said, referring to interest charged at unreasonably high rates. To a lot of the public, prison is a lost story, a lost narrative. They’re not thinking of those who are incarcerated as our future community members, our future neighbors.
“But most people come home,” Tyner said, “so what do you want their experience to be? If they are connected to their families and their communities, it’s better for everyone.”
Prison phone reform has been building since Martha Wright, a grandmother in Washington, D.C., brought the issue to light about 18 years ago. Wright, who has since died, spent nearly $1,000 a year of her fixed income to stay in touch with her grandson so he wouldn’t feel abandoned.
More than 2.7 million American children have an incarcerated parent. In Minnesota, more than 15,000 children do.
For fully half of these families, the inmate was the primary breadwinner. As these families struggle, phone companies, and prisons, prosper.
Correctional facilities generally enter into exclusive contracts with phone service providers, with commissions (or kickbacks) to prisons that reach as high as 60 percent. In 2013, phone service companies paid at least $460 million in commissions to correctional facilities, according to a brief filed by advocates for inmates and their families.
Wright’s class-action lawsuit was referred to the FCC in 2001. It didn’t get traction, though, until 2012, when Mignon Clyburn, the lone Democrat and the first African-American woman to be FCC chair, made phone justice her top priority.
Clyburn pushed through the first wave of regulations and, as momentum built, many states adopted price caps. Then President Donald Trump, in one of his first presidential decisions, appointed Commissioner Ajit Pai to chair the FCC.
Pai said that “due to a change in the composition of the commission,” the FCC would no longer defend the caps.
“The night Trump won, people were freaking out about health care, but I knew our case at the FCC was largely over,” said Lee Petro, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney providing pro bono counsel to families.
But the fight for phone justice is nowhere near over. Supporters are “strongly considering” an appeal of the decision by the end of July, Petro said.
Advocates also are moving to “block transactions by bad actors.” In one Michigan county, Petro said, a phone company “eliminated” its illegal connection fee, but then charged $8.20 for the first minute to make up for it.
Minnesota, I’m sorry to say, isn’t the gold standard, either, with some first-minute rates north of $4.
“The only people who win from this,” Petro said, “are the privately owned phone companies.”
Yet, he’s buoyed by a growing number of states stepping up to bring costs down.
“Alabama is a model for resolving this issue,” he said. “New Mexico also. Louisiana is working on it and New Jersey recently adopted caps. That’s where this fight has to go.”
Tyner agrees. “This may have to be a state-by-state movement,” she said. “I know that it will have to be something where the voice of the people continues to be heard. As a civil rights attorney, I know about the power of the people.”
For those who prefer the power of the bottom line, they’ve got that covered, too.
Petro points out that a reduction in recidivism by just 1 percent translates into a savings of $250 million annually.
Petro recalls one letter from an inmate four years ago, who wrote, “Look, I’m paying my dues to society. I’m doing what society told me to do. But my family shouldn’t have to foot this additional fee. How many different ways do I have to pay for my crime?”
Comments like that, Petro said, “are what drives me at the end of the day. That person doesn’t have anybody arguing his case. He is largely marginalized from society.
“That’s what we are fighting for.”