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Ruling on prison phone costs stalled

Grandmother fought for years to lower expense

Martha Wright-Reed, 86, called her grandson, Ulandis Forte, whose childhood photo is at left, when he was in prison.

TRACY A. WOODWARD/WASHINGTON POST

Martha Wright-Reed, 86, called her grandson, Ulandis Forte, whose childhood photo is at left, when he was in prison.

WASHINGTON — Almost a decade ago, a petition by the families of inmates tired of paying sky-high rates for prison telephone calls landed at the Federal Communications Commission.

Martha Wright-Reed of Washington, an 86-year-old former nurse who is blind, and other petitioners didn’t think it was right for their incarcerated sons, daughters, and grandchildren to pay so much more than everyone else to keep in touch.

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Phone companies that charge high rates say most of their revenue goes to governments in the form of commissions that help pay for their criminal justice systems. Many years later, the FCC has not decided.

‘‘They seem to be dragging their feet,’’ Wright-Reed said. Wright-Reed’s quest is a familiar one in a country that is not sympathetic about prisoners’ rights, emphasizing punishment over rehabilitation for those who commit crimes, inmate advocates said.

‘‘Inmate phone system charges are often very unfair,’’ Stephen Steurer, executive director of the Correctional Education Association, said in an e-mail.

A prison education advocate, Steurer said he has had to decline collect calls from a client at Jessup Correctional Institution in Maryland because of the price.

‘‘It would actually be easier for me to visit him at JCI since it is just a few miles from my office,’’ he said.

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Neil Derek Grace, a spokesman for Julius Genachowski, FCC chairman, said in an e-mail that ‘‘the FCC is working with all interested parties — including the families of inmates, prison pay phone providers, public interest groups, and the states — to address the question of rates for interstate phone calls by inmates and their families, and we are preparing next steps.’’

The issue has a champion on the FCC board: Mignon Clyburn, a 2009 appointee of President Obama. But there still is no timetable for when the FCC must rule on what is called the ‘‘Wright petition.’’

‘‘I thought they had dropped it and forgot about it,’’ Wright-Reed said.

Why do phone calls from prison cost more than other phone calls? Securus, a Dallas- company that offers phone service to 2,200 facilities in 44 states, cites the price of the technology required to monitor phone calls, as well as related research and development.

‘‘Securus has many different kinds of features it can build into the call system to live-monitor or record,’’ said Stephanie Joyce, counsel for Securus.

Lee Petro, Wright-Reed’s lawyer and pro bono counsel for the petitioners, disagrees, saying that the telephone equipment that companies use in jails is standard.

But what makes prison phone calls pricey is not the cost of such equipment. It is the commissions that go to state and county governments.

‘‘The proponents of slashing rates call them ‘kickbacks,’ ’’ said Joyce. ‘‘I feel that does a disservice to these government entities that are complying with state law or trying to fund overtaxed jails.’’

The commissions are considerable. In some Virginia prisons, they are 35 percent of the price of a phone call.

Martha Wright-Reed became the named plaintiff in the class-action protest over the cost of prison phone calls because she never gave up on her grandson, Ulandis Fort, who went to prison for manslaughter in 1994. He was paroled in June.

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