NYT Joins Wright Petition Plaintiff

Leaders urge the FCC to lower the cost of calls from prison

Martha Wright, of the Wright Petition, meets in person with the FCC to tell her story.
Martha Wright, of the Wright Petition, meets in person with the FCC to tell her story.
  • Martha Wright, of the Wright Petition, meets in person with the FCC to tell her story.
    Martha Wright, of the Wright Petition, meets in person with the FCC to tell her story.
    Martha Wright, of the Wright Petition, meets in person with the FCC to tell her story.
    Martha Wright, of the Wright Petition, meets in person with the FCC to tell her story.
Washington, DC- For nearly a decade, Mrs. Martha Wright has been waiting for the chance to tell the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) how the exorbitant cost of calls from prison has changed her life.  Today, through an unusual partnership between 2012 Sundance Film Festival Award winner and filmmaker Ava DuVernay and the national Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net)- Mrs. Wright got her chance.

"We filed the initial case on behalf of Ms. Wright and others in 2000, and filed the Wright petition with the FCC in 2003, with an amended petition in 2007,” says Philip Fornaci, attorney for Martha Wright.  “We are encouraged, in 2012, that the FCC is finally taking the time to listen to our clients and understand the human cost of their inaction. I hope this means that there will very soon be action on Martha Wright's petition. It's long overdue."

"By bringing together criminal justice reform and communication rights folks we are protecting vulnerable consumers and advancing human rights making our communities healthier and safer," adds Nick Szuberla, Director of Working Narratives, one of the organizations leading the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice.

Members of the FCC sat for an unprecedented advanced screening of DuVernay’s soon-to-be released, “Middle of Nowhere”, then heard testimony from previously incarcerated individuals, criminal justice advocates, civil rights leaders, and film industry professionals urging FCC staff to pass the Wright Petition.  Named for elderly petitioner Martha Wright, the Wright Petition, also known as Docket 96-128, would cap the cost of inter-state calls from prison. “Middle of Nowhere” is a dynamic feature-length film that chronicles a woman’s separation from her incarcerated husband and her struggles to keep her family connected.

"On behalf of the filmmakers and cast, we're honored that MIDDLE OF NOWHERE is being used as a tool to shed light on the loved ones of the incarcerated and the challenges they face in staying connected to their family members," says filmmaker Ava DuVernay.  "We are proud to stand with this campaign to expose the issue, educate the unaware and push the FCC to remedy predatory phone rates that contribute to the deterioration of at-risk families and communities."

A recent poll of African-American and Latino communities found that an overwhelming 81 percent of African-Americans and 70 percent of Latinos believe it is unacceptable for calls from prison to be higher than those outside of prison.  Still, telephone companies serving prisons charge as much as $18 for a 15-minutes of talk time, three times the average rate for a regular inter-state phone call, according to a toolkit produced by the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice

A related infographic illustrates how weak federal oversight allows phone companies to receive commissions or “kickbacks” for the sole right to monopolize service, except in the few states that have banned these commissions. This predatory practice forces “captive consumers” to choose between staying connected to incarcerated loved ones, or paying for groceries and other bills.  Civil rights leaders and policymakers from across the country, including Representatives Henry Waxman (CA) and Bobby Rush (IL), have sent letters to the FCC decrying these conditions, and pushing for action on the Petition. And on Friday, the FCC Consumer Advisory Committee (CAC), a committee set up to make recommendations to the Commission regarding consumer issues, passed a prison phone rates resolution.

“We’re excited to announce that the FCC took a huge step today, now we need them to go the rest of the way.” stated Andrea Quijada, Media Literacy Project Executive Director. “Members of MAG-Net who sit on the FCC Consumer Advisory Committee worked to successfully pass a resolution because we believe that no family should have to shoulder the burden of unfair and unreasonable phone charges just because they want to talk to a loved one who is incarcerated. Now we need the FCC to take action and level the playing field of phone rates.”

Commissioner Clyburn, in particular, has championed passage of the Wright Petition, which has been in front of the FCC since 2003. 

Statement from Commissioner Clyburn below.

"Charging significantly higher rates for phone calls not only impacts the families of those in prison, but also families of those who have been detained for immigration proceedings," says Amalia Deloney, Associate Director of the Center for Media Justice, and staff of the Media Action Grassroots Network.

“Everyone deserves the right to call home. We hope Mrs. Martha Wright and other petitioners reminded FCC Chairman Genachoswki that millions of families are hoping he will choose to make history by passing the Wright Petition, and end this unfair practice. It’s been ten years, how much longer will families have to wait?”

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STATEMENT FROM COMMISSIONER CLYBURN

“Today, I saw the award-winning film, Middle of Nowhere.  It beautifully portrays the compelling story of a young family separated by distance due to incarceration, and it captures the struggles families face when their loved ones are serving sentences hundreds of miles from home.  Staying connected is challenging.  Traveling for in-person visits is time consuming, often expensive, and such hardships are most acute for low-income families who struggle to make ends meet.  So access to low-cost phone service options should be part of the answer to this family divide.  Connecting husbands to wives, parents to children, and grandparents and grandchildren to each other should be a national priority because these tangible means of communicating not only will help these families keep in contact, but the general society benefits overall, as studies show that prisoners are less likely to reoffend if they are able to maintain these relationships.  

I also had the opportunity to meet Mrs. Martha Wright and her grandson, Mr. Ulandis Forte, who filed a petition with the FCC almost ten years ago to request that the Commission help make interstate long distance rates for inmates and their families affordable.  The good news is that the familial bond between Mrs. Wright and her grandson was not broken by exorbitant prison payphone rates.  Mr. Forte has paid his debt to society, was recently released from prison, and they are now reunited.  But what this family has not done is stop fighting for all of the others who remain desperate to hear the voices of their incarcerated loved ones on a regular basis.  They know what it’s like when you can’t afford to make even a short call, let alone the more important ones containing the missing news that all families want to share—such as hearing your child’s first words or describing their first academic highlight or great sports feat.  And let us not minimize the power behind simply hearing and expressing those three words, ‘I love you.’

I am uplifted that both political parties during their respective conventions this summer reiterated their commitments to policies that will reduce the recidivism rate in our nation, and I am further energized in that this agency also has a role to play in doing just that.  It is the Commission’s responsibility to ensure that interstate phone rates are just and reasonable, and we have an obligation to ensure that basic, affordable phone service is available to all Americans, including low-income consumers.  Incarcerated individuals and their loved ones should not be the exceptions here, and as watchdogs of the public interest, this Commission must and should act expeditiously.   It is time for us to do the right thing and answer the Wright Petition.”

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The film, “Middle of Nowhere” will see official release on October 12th, and is attached to a social action campaign led by Participant Media, distributor of the film. Participant Media has partnered with the Media Action Grassroots Network to gather signatures through an online petition urging the FCC to adopt affordable rates for long distance phone calls from prisons, jails and detention centers. 

A project of the Center for Media Justice, the Media Action Grassroots Network is a local to local alliance of community-based organizations collaborating for a more just and humane society through media rights and access.

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