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Federal Sentencing Law: The High Cost of Prison Phone Calls

By David Lindsey Attorney of David Lindsey, Attorney at Law posted in Federal Sentencing Law on Tuesday, October 9, 2012.

A hidden result of the inmate-phone industry is widespread discrimination in federal sentencing law, because the rates effectively disallow phone calls between inmates and their families who cannot afford the exorbitant price of a phone call.

The FCC has agreed, under pressure from a collection of civil rights and religious groups as well as members of Congress, to take up the question of these exorbitant rates. Martha Wright, an elderly blind grandmother who could not afford to maintain contact with her incarcerated grandson, initially petitioned them in 2003. The question has received more attention of late with the release of "Middle of Nowhere", an award-winning film about a woman's struggle to maintain her relationship with her husband.

The phone calls, which can run as much as $17 for fifteen minutes, are controlled by a select group of providers who bid for exclusive contracts to a prison, in exchange for paying nearly two-thirds of the calling charges to the prison operators. Officials claim that these fees cover the cost of maintaining the higher security these calls require. The resulting discrimination in federal sentencing law punishes those without the means to pay for these calls.

The high fees make it increasingly difficult for prisoners to maintain contact with their loved ones, and many believe this increases the likelihood that the inmate will return to prison. At a 2010 Comgressional hearing, the director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute testified that contact while in prison reinforces ties between inmates and their families, giving the prisoners a greater stake in good behavior.

There is no guarantee that the hearing will lead the FCC to take action, but it is a sign of hope for people like Martha Wright, who are fighting to keep their families together.

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