New FCC Chair continues prison phone battle
ABOVE PHOTO: Mignon Clyburn says rates are unfair to inmates and families.
By Stacy M. Brown
Mignon Clyburn, a veteran policymaker from the Public Service Commission of South Carolina, has been appointed acting chair of the Federal Communications Commission, the first woman to ever hold the post.
Since joining the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2009, Clyburn remains a leader in the fight to reduce telephone rates for prison inmates throughout the country and, in her first interview since being appointed by President Barack Obama to her new post, she vows to continue that battle.
“Tens of thousands of consumers have written, emailed, and telephoned the Federal Communications Commission, pleading for relief on interstate long distance rates from correctional facilities and I intend to keep pushing this issue,” said Clyburn, 51.
Clyburn said that she could not discuss details regarding her recent appointment, which was announced on May 1.
However, the second-term FCC commissioner is miffed that rates make it cheaper to place a cellular telephone call from as far away as Singapore than it is for an inmate to make an interstate collect call from prisons in the United States.
According to data from various telephone companies, including Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint, the average cost of a call to Singapore is 12 cents per minute, while a call from prison includes a $3.95 connection fee regardless of the length of the conversation.
“One five-minute call from prison could be as high as $17 with the connection fee and the per minute rate can be as high as 89 cents,” Clyburn said. “That framework can be as high as your regular monthly phone bill. We’re talking a significant amount of money for those who are least likely to be able to afford that type of engagement. All of this has motivated me to keep this fight going,” she said.
Clyburn, who holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Banking, Finance and Economics from the University of South Carolina, served as chair of South Carolina’s Public Service Commission from 2002 to 2004.
While Clyburn has made her mark in the public sector, she remains proud of her background in media – that’s where she learned to speak truth to power.
“It was on an African-American newspaper, the Coastal Times, in South Carolina,” she said. Clyburn co-owned and operated the newspaper with her father, Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the former House majority whip and the current Assistant Democratic Leader.
Clyburn said she will continue to pressure regulators to find more affordable solutions and rates for inmates and their families.
Two private companies own the service that operate all prison phone calls in the country, Global Tel*Link Corp. of Mobile, Ala., and Securus Technologies, Inc. of Dallas, Texas. A spokeswoman at Global Tel*Link and a secretary at Securus each declined comment.
Officials from both companies have previously said during a conference in New York last year that the higher rates are due to the security features their technology provides, such as monitoring phone calls and blocking numbers.
“But, technology is readily available and not something that should translate to $15 for a 15-minute phone call,” said Steven Renderos, national organizer for the Center for Media Justice in Oakland, Calif.
Rates for the calls widely vary from state-to-state, but the commissions received by the phone companies and prisons are high, Renderos said.
“For example, in Alabama the commission rate is 61.5 percent, and this translates to families having to pay 89 cents a minute on top of the $3.95 connection fee every time a family member receives a call,” said Renderos.
“Eight states, California, South Carolina, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Michigan, and Missouri, have banned these commissions and in those states, you see some of the lowest rates for phone calls,” he said.
The District of Columbia prohibits any surcharge, commission, or other financial imposition on prisoners’ phone calls beyond legally established phone rates, which are limited to the maximum rate determined by the District’s Public Service Commission, agency officials said.
Clyburn, who in 2001 began work to reduce the rates and recruited Jesse Jackson’s Operation Push to assist, said the telephone is a crucial instrument for the incarcerated, and those who care about them, because telephone usage is often the only communications option available.
“Maintaining contact with family and friends during incarceration not only helps the inmate, but it is beneficial to our society as a whole because there are well over two million children with at least one parent behind bars and regardless of their circumstances, both children and parents gain from regular contact with one another,” said Clyburn.
A major hurdle in the battle to reduce the call rates is the “Almighty dollar,” officials at the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) said. Last week, representatives from the CBC also signed on to help Clyburn fight the exorbitant costs of prison calls.
The phone market in state prison systems is worth more than $362 million annually. Payments to governments in return for exclusive phone contracts account for an estimated 42 percent nationwide, or $152 million per year, according to a 2011 report published by Prison Legal News.
Also, while telephone companies sometimes provide reduced rates for evening and nighttime calls, many prisoners don’t have the luxury of scheduling phone calls during those time periods.
When Louisiana issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) for prison phone services in 2001, it specified that the maximum points should be awarded to the bidder who bids the highest percentage of compensation. It also stated a desire that the bidder’s compensation percentages be “as high as possible,” the study stated.
When the Alaska Department of Corrections issued an RFP in 2007, bidders were rated on a point system with 60 percent of the evaluation points assigned to cost.
Some of America’s prisons are privately owned and publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), meaning that they are for-profit businesses and pay dividends to shareholders. Cornell Companies Inc. (whose NYSE symbol is CRN), Corrections Corp. of America (CXW) and Geo Group Inc. (GEO), are the three companies that own prisons in the U.S.
Cornell, which operates in 15 states and the District of Columbia, is currently trading at $29.45 a share. Stock for Corrections Corp., the largest owner of partnership correction and detention facilities and one of the largest prison operators in the United States, is trading at $37.07. Located in Boca Raton, Fla., the Geo Group is trading at $37.92 a share and the company is expected to release its first quarter financials on May 9.
“I’m optimistic on a number of fronts,” Clyburn said. “Our office has constantly ensured that this process of reducing the rates is one that is dynamic and moving forward,” she said.
“The more people who are aware of what’s going on, the better because there isn’t anyone, myself included, who hasn’t had this type of engagement. We all know or are related to someone who has been or is currently incarcerated and a lot of people still don’t realize how significant of an economic impact this has on poor families.”
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