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Dialing with Dollars: How County Jails Profit From Immigrant Detainees

Officers escort an undocumented immigrant into custody in Maricopa County, Arizona. (Reuters/Joshua Lott)

Officers escort an undocumented immigrant into custody in Maricopa County, Arizona. (Reuters/Joshua Lott)

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May 15, 2014
The Nation

Arali was at home with her three-year-old son, Jose, when she got a call from Suffolk County Jail, a correctional facility about half an hour from her apartment in Framingham, Massachusetts. Her husband, Milton, was on the other end of the line. In tears, Milton explained to her that he had been detained after being in a car that was pulled over for a minor traffic violation.

Both Milton and Arali are undocumented immigrants from Guatemala. Milton migrated to the United States at twenty-one years-old in 2005 following a hurricane that devastated his farm and much of Guatemala’s highland region, leaving him without a source of income to support his two children. Since then, Milton’s family back in Guatemala has been overwhelmed by the drug and gang-related violence that has ravaged the country over the last three decades. Drug traffickers recently killed Milton’s cousin. For Milton, deportation could mean risking death.

Milton, who prefers to use only his first name because of his open immigration case, was carpooling with his friend when a state policeman pulled them over on Highway 495, near his home. The police officer said the car’s stickers had expired. He asked Milton, who was in the passenger seat, for identification and Milton handed him an ID from the Guatemalan consulate. Shortly after, Milton says the police officer told him, “ICE is looking for you.”

What he didn’t know was that ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, had issued a deportation order for him. These orders are relatively common. They instruct immigrants to appear in court at some undetermined time and place, and further instructions are, in theory, supposed to reach the immigrant by mail. This often does not happen. In Milton’s case, the police officer arrested him and took him to Suffolk County Jail, where five hours after his arrest he was finally given a chance to call his wife. “What are we going to do?” Arali asked him in tears over the phone. “What’s going to happen to us?”

During the following four months that Milton was detained at Plymouth County Detention Center, phone calls were his single lifeline to fighting deportation and talking with his wife and son Jose, who was told his father was away for work. But that lifeline came with a heavy price. Each of these calls cost about $7, according to Milton and Arali. Every eight days or so, Arali would deposit about $75 in an account to pay for the phone calls. Because of Jose, Arali didn’t think twice about the cost. “Milton would say, ‘Don’t deposit any more money. You need that for other things,’” Arali, 28, explains. “I would tell him, ‘I need to.’ I couldn’t find the words to tell [our son] what was happening.”

Arali and Milton are just two of thousands of undocumented immigrants across the United States who are charged exorbitant rates for calls from county jails that contract with ICE to hold immigrant detainees. About 50 percent of all immigrant detainees are held in county jails, according to ICE, and many of these cash-strapped jails, like Plymouth County Detention Center, have sought to raise revenue through contracts with phone companies that charge excessive rates and kick back part of the profits. Immigrant detainees end up paying the same inflated telephone rates charged to their citizen inmate counterparts, but unlike jail inmates charged with a crime, immigration detainees don’t have access to court-appointed attorneys. This means they are responsible for finding an attorney or representing themselves, both tasks that require affordable phone access.

“There is no right to court-appointed council if you’re an indigent immigration detainee,” confirms Claudia Valenzuela, associate director of litigation with the National Immigrant Justice Center based in Chicago. “So communicating with family or friends is extremely important because you have to get your own evidence. If you don’t have an attorney, you’re basically navigating alone.”

The few rights afforded to immigrant detainees are detailed in a series of national detention standards issued by ICE in three different editions in 2000, 2008 and 2011. The telephone standards from 2011 are the most robust. In them, ICE requires facilities to offer effective and confidential communication with legal counsel and “reasonably priced telephone rates” in which “contracts for such services shall…be based on rates and surcharges comparable to those charged to the general public.” Any difference in rates should “reflect actual costs associated with the provision of services in a detention setting.”

But jails contracting with ICE are not compelled to follow the most recent version of these standards. Some facilities reviewed by The Nation do in fact follow the most recent edition of ICE’s detention standards. But other facilities, like Essex County Jail in New Jersey, which can hold up to 800 detainees on any given day, operate under ICE’s 2008 standards. These only mention “reasonably priced telephone services” and make a thin reference to telephone policies that will “foster legal access.” Still other facilities, like Plymouth County Detention Center where Milton was held for four months, function under the 2000 standards. These standards, which were created by Immigration Naturalization Services, an agency that was replaced by ICE in 2003, do not mention the cost of calls, stating only that detainees be permitted “to make direct calls to legal service providers.”

Immigrant rights advocates say these ill-defined, inconsistent and unenforceable standards allow jails to charge immigrant detainees rates that effectively disconnect them from family and legal access. In February, county jails and state prisons began implementing a recent Federal Communications Order that capped interstate debit and pre-paid calls at $0.21 per minute and $0.25 per minute for collect calls. But that left in-state calls, which fall under state regulation, untouched.

The exclusive contracts county jails hold with telephone companies like Securus, Global Tel*Link and ICSolutions continue to charge high rates. At Santa Ana City Jail in California, for example, a long-distance, 15-minute in-state phone call can cost more than $13. The jail charges 69 cents a minute for in-state calls and a $3.30 connection fee. The city collects a 54 percent commission on the total profits from the calls. The jail in Yuba County, also in California, has a rate structure that is based on the distance to the receiver and time of day. A long distance, 15-minute in-state phone call can cost more than $12 for a detainee. The county collects a 45 percent commission. Santa Ana made more than $237,000 in commission on calls last year; Yuba County more than $109,000.

“ICE is aware of the considerable range in detainee phone rates at facilities across the detention system,” ICE wrote to The Nation in an e-mail. “In some facilities, rates are substantially less than rates and surcharges comparable to the general public, but in the other facilities, certain types of calls are higher. At local jails and municipal facilities, ICE does not have input or control over the telephone rates or telephone service providers subcontracted by the government entity.”

As ICE denies a role in this odd patchwork of varying standards, the families of immigration detainees stretch themselves thin to maintain their family connections and stay in contact with their lawyers. When Milton was detained in June of last year, stay-at-home mom Arali took two part-time restaurant jobs, making $8 an hour. But even then, some weeks Arali didn’t have enough to pay for rent, let alone a phone call.

Many detainees are held in facilities in remote areas, and while criminal defendants in those same jails have a right to court-appointed counsel in the county where they are held, immigrant detainees do not. Because many immigrant detainees seek out free legal services from non-profit law firms—the median household income of undocumented immigrants was about $36,000 in 2007 compared to $50,000 for US-born households—phone access is essential.

Exacerbating the problem, people in detention can’t receive calls or leave voice messages unless they pay an additional fee. About 78 percent of detainees are in facilities that do not allow attorneys to schedule calls with their clients, according to a 2010 report from the National Immigrant Justice Center, and many jails have phone policies that make it difficult for detainees to use the phones during business hours when their lawyer might be available. Family members end up playing a crucial role in facilitating legal cases between attorneys and their detained loved ones.

“A lot of clients have complained to me when they do get access to phones, it’s late at night like 8 or 9 o’clock,” says Anoop Prasad, an attorney with the Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, California, which currently has between fifteen and twenty active immigration cases. “They might be able to call family, but they can’t call their attorneys to prepare for their case.”

In Milton’s case, Arali found a local private immigration lawyer through a friend at church. Arali worked overtime to be able to pay for an attorney and sometimes didn’t deposit phone money to cover the fees. The law firm pays a company to accept collect calls from the local detention centers, including Plymouth, but the costs were “not nominal,” according to Alejandro Heredia-Santoyo, Milton’s attorney. “Most of the time that we spoke, Milton would call or I would let Arali know I needed to talk to Milton,” says Heredia-Santoyo. “Then she would give me a message that he would call me at a certain time. Without family, it becomes tremendously difficult to have that line of communication.”

ICE does provide a pro-bono platform for detainees to make free calls to approved nonprofit legal services, but even with this service, attorneys say the telephone tree system is complicated. It requires a live person to pick up the phone and sometimes fails to connect calls. If no one is available to answer the call, detainees can’t leave messages and attorneys are often left waiting to hear back from their client. “A lot of people I represented would have…appeals coming up,” says Aneesha Gandhi, an attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago. “The fact that I couldn’t get in touch with them when I needed to made it difficult for me to advocate for them.”

Some facilities reviewed by The Nation, like Pinal County Jail in Arizona, McHenry County Jail in Illinois, Calhoun County Jail in Michigan and Portsmouth City Jail in Virginia, do allow inmates to leave and receive voice messages—for a fee. This fee can range from 50 cents to $1.50 per message. These counties collect a percentage of the calls from 45 cents a call at Calhoun to 75 cents at Portsmouth, according to their contracts.

“As a nonprofit, the demand for services is higher than resources we have as staff,” explains Eleni Wolfe-Roubatis, immigration program director for El Centro Legal de la Raza in Oakland, California, which represents immigrant detainees. “If you’re able to arrange a call with a client rather than driving to a county jail for 3 hours, you can do more cases.” Wolfe-Roubatis says El Centro reviews about 120 possible detention cases each month, but ends up only taking on about twenty-five at a time. The organization also has a network of volunteer attorneys who are currently handling ten other cases.

Because nonprofit legal services are overstretched or detainees may not know they are available, many low-income immigrants represent themselves in court. In 2013 about 41 percent of undocumented immigrants did not have a lawyer during their immigration case, according to the Department of Justice. For detained immigrants that figure rises to 84 percent, according to a 2007 report from Amnesty International.

ICE allows detainees to make free phone calls to government consulates, the Office of the Inspector General to make complaints, some non-profit agencies and ICE itself. But self-representing detainees can’t make free phone calls to former attorneys, possible witnesses or any other government agency to help their case. They have to pay for those calls themselves.

“If you don’t have friends or family and you need documentation from a criminal case or a school, you’re on your own in gathering this information,” says Valenzuela of the National Immigrant Justice Center. “How do you make that call to that school if it is not on a pre-approved list or if you don’t have the funds? It really infringes on a person’s right to due process to be able to make your case.”

The issue is not new to ICE. A 2007 Government Accountability Office report outlined the severity of the poor quality of telephone access for detainees, writing the “detention facilities showed systemic telephone system problems.” ICE then implemented a new provision in its contract with Talton Communications, the telephone service provider that serves the few detention facilities it owns. It now withholds half the profits from debit and collect calls until the provider passes a semi-annual performance review. ICE does not accept commissions on phone calls because of the Anti-Kickback Act of 1986, which prohibits contractors from offering the agency any commissions on services.

Calls from the six facilities owned and operated by ICE now cost substantially less than calls from many county jails. Since ICE implemented these changes, many of the nonprofit law firms and advocacy organizations interviewed by The Nation say they have brought the issue of phone call costs to their local ICE offices, but the price of a call has yet to change at county jails.

In December, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California filed a class action lawsuit against ICE on behalf of all detainees held at Contra Costa, Sacramento and Yuba County detention facilities, arguing that restricting phone access “denies or severely limits Plaintiffs’ statutory and constitutional rights.”

“The cost and structure pose a huge barrier to even contacting a lawyer and asking them to represent you through an initial consultation,” says Julia Harumi Mass, lead counsel in the lawsuit with the ACLU. “Off the bat [that] limits your ability to get an attorney to such an extent that we think it violates the right to counsel.”

At Sacramento County Jail, inmates pay up to $4.75 for a 15-minute in-state call, according to its contract with ICSolutions provided by the ACLU. The company also charges $6.50 for a “credit/debit card transaction fee for pre-paid collect” accounts and a monthly collect billing fee of $2.49. Sacramento County collects a 65 percent commission on every call. At West County Detention Center in Contra Costa County, detainees can pay up to $8 for a 20-minute in-state phone call. The county collected a $75,000 bonus for signing the contract on top of a 57 percent commission on all calls, according to its contract obtained by the ACLU.

Audley Barrington Lyon Jr., a 34-year old Jamaican immigrant and the lead plaintiff in the case, is currently being detained at West County Detention Center. He has been trying since October to get the documents he needs to apply for a U-Visa, a class of visa granted to immigrants who are crime victims, but his wife can’t afford to pay for his phone calls to prove he was randomly shot and cooperated with authorities to find the shooter.

“My wife and I have been forced to communicate by writing letters to one another,” he wrote in his declaration. “However, it has been extremely slow and inefficient for us to work together on my immigration case by mail. A simple question causes a delay of several days.”

ICE denied any allegation of “ongoing violations of the constitutional and statutory rights of immigrants held in government custody pending deportation proceedings,” according to its court response. The lawsuit is now moving forward at the Northern District Court of California.

That same month, California Assembly member Bill Quirk introduced a bill that would prohibit inmate telephone service contracts with jails and juvenile facilities from including “commission or other payment” to the facility. They would also have to provide the “lowest cost of service” to inmates and detainees. The California-based advocacy group Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), has long pressed for such a measure. Co-directors Christina Mansfield and Christina Fialho founded a visitation program at West County Detention Center in 2010. “[Detainees] inability to maintain contact with their families was completely dire,” says Mansfield, whose organization now has about 700 visiting volunteers across the country. The bill passed the Local Government Committee on April 23, and the Assembly will vote on the bill later this month.

Advocates are also laying the groundwork for reform in New Jersey. On April 30, a group of family members of current county jail inmates, former ICE detainees and criminal justice organizations filed a petition with the Board of Public Utilities, which regulates in-state phone policies, calling for it to enforce “just and reasonable” phone costs for county jail inmates.

Meanwhile, after months in detention, Milton was eventually released from detention after ICE determined he was a low-priority deportation case. He is now at home in Massachusetts, finally reunited with his wife and son. He came home pale and thin—he rarely had free time outside and the jail served mostly potatoes for meals—and their son still suffers from the trauma of his dad being gone so long, but most days are peaceful. Monday through Saturday Milton works at a company that sells rugs in nearby Wesley, and every Sunday they go to church in Framingham. Sometimes Milton plays soccer with his friends on the weekends.

“We’re just grateful he’s out now,” said Arali, who still lives with fear that the immigration court could eventually decide to deport her husband. “We’re just fighting for another opportunity to stay.”

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Aging with HIV

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Richard Kelso has been living with HIV for almost 30 years. As he ages, he confronts a more complex set of health issues and concerns. (Photo credit: Leticia Miranda)

March 13, 2014

When Richard Kelso was diagnosed with HIV in 1987, he was devastated. In the late 1980s, scientists and physicians were still trying to understand the virus. The available medications they used to treat HIV were often toxic and untested.

But Kelso’s devastation quickly gave way to hope that he could live with this illness. The clinician at the Chelsea Health Clinic in New York, where he was diagnosed, gave him a stack of pamphlets about HIV as well as support groups he could attend.

“Even though I was frightened of the prospects, she made it seem like there was a possibility that it was not a death sentence,” said Kelso, 71, sitting on a piano bench in his Chelsea apartment. “There was something I could do that could be helpful and I didn’t have to just go home and wait to die.”

For the first five years after he was diagnosed, Kelso treated himself with a regiment of Chinese medicines and herbs to boost his immune system. It was the beginning of a series of experiments in staving off the virus. Eventually he began taking pharmaceutical drugs to manage his illness. He says he has never been hospitalized because of HIV.

“The medications have been miraculous,” said Kelso. “As somebody who is aging with HIV, the biggest hurdle is to just deal with the apprehension about death and my health from day to day.

By the mid-1990s, treatment for HIV drastically improved which meant that people like Kelso had the chance to live a longer life. Now he is one of a growing number of people who are living longer with HIV as treatments have become more effective. But even with these advances, patients with HIV and their physicians have a more complex challenge ahead of them as they try to treat HIV along with the typical illnesses that come with aging.

Many people aging with HIV face what clinicians call “multi-morbidity,” which means the patient has multiple incurable health issues that are treatable. In Kelso’s case he has to be treated for HIV as well as cholesterol, which is a result of aging not the virus or medication. Traditionally, doctors are trained to treat HIV apart from other health conditions. In geriatric medicine, doctors are trained to work with patients older than 65 with multiple health issues but may not know how to treat HIV along with those other illnesses.

This kind of treatment is essential to people aging with HIV. They are at a higher risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, early frailty and kidney failure. The medicine to treat these could aggravate the HIV and the HIV treatment could have a damaging affect on their other health conditions.

“We call it going from the silo of treating HIV and now going to treating the whole person at once,” said Steve Karpiak, senior director for research and evaluation with ACRIA, an HIV research organization. “The question is what is the primary disease that has to be managed? The reality is they all have to be. It’s a balancing act and it’s best done through a team approach with the patient.”

But health care is not the only issue confronting some people aging with HIV. They are often more likely to have weaker social networks than people who are not infected with HIV. Many of them are isolated from their families because of their illness or sexuality. The networks they do have are mostly other HIV-infected people who may not be able to provide the kind of long-term care they will need.

“Some live alone and don’t have a partner,” said Bill Mendez, a case manager at Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, who runs a support group for people aging with HIV. “There’s a lot of anger and a lot of resentment towards their family or siblings. They don’t hear from them. They don’t speak to them. They come here for support.”

Kelso has over 30 years of being his own advocate and has created a healthy and full life for himself. Over the years he has had to become an expert on his own illness.

“We treat our doctors as consultants not as a god who dispenses medicine,” said Kelso about the SAGE support group. “You have to take control and be your own best advisor. Don’t take what the doctor says as a mandate that you have to adhere to because sometimes they don’t know. As new medications come along they dispense them but they don’t know what the long-term effects are. It’s up to you to sort of keep on top of that.”

Why Aren’t Civil Rights Groups Standing Up to the Telecom Giants?

An AT&T logo is displayed on an AT&T Wireless retail store front, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

An AT&T logo is displayed on an AT&T Wireless retail store front, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

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August 12, 2013
The Nation

Erika Delgado cut her landline service last December. She had cycled through four different companies since 2000, with each company charging her for calls she didn’t make, services she never signed up for and things she thought were included in her contract. After five years with Pacific Bell, Delgado moved to Verizon because it offered her discounted rates for weekend calls and other services. Though she qualified for Lifeline, a discount program designed to provide basic telephone service for low-income customers, a landslide of unexpected fees and overcharges soon overwhelmed her.

“They say they’ll give you discounts, but it’s not true,” says Delgado, a 40-year-old single mother of three children living off of the $850 a month she earns from her business selling clothes and electronics at the Mt. Vernon Swap Meet in San Bernardino, California. “They just charge, charge, charge.”

Delgado cut her service with Verizon after just a year and a half and moved to AT&T. She decided to enroll in a $20-a-month plan that included long-distance calling, an important feature because she frequently makes calls home to Mexico. But after making two fifteen- to twenty-minute calls to Mexico, she was slapped with a $90 charge for the calls. She says AT&T then told her that her plan did not cover long distance to Mexico, and that $200 would cover the cost of the calls and the additional fees.

“I had to choose to either feed my kids or pay the bill,” she says. The company sent her to collections and she cut service with AT&T after just six months.

Now, with a mounting collections bill on her credit report, Delgado doesn’t even consider moving away from her mobile home or applying for a job that requires good credit. She has also given up entirely on getting the landline service she needs at home. Sometimes her cellphone doesn’t get a signal in her home, and when she can’t afford the electricity bill, she has no way to charge the battery. “I am a single mom and my kids have asthma,” she says. “In case of an emergency with my kids, I need reliable telephone service at home to call 911.”

Delgado’s decade-long struggle to find affordable and reliable telephone service is not unique. Her story, and the plight of millions of other low-income people, are at the heart of a debate between civil rights groups and public interest advocates who find themselves at opposite ends of a debate about what rules, if any, should prevent companies like AT&T from exploiting consumers like Delgado.

In November 2012, in anticipation of moving its telephone service from traditional, wired networks to IP-based phone networks, which transmit voice communications digitally, AT&T filed a petition with the FCC to run test trials of IP-based telephone services. In exchange for expanding these networks, the company is requesting “relief” from critical regulations that apply to wired telephone services. These regulations, which include obligations to provide universal service and state-enforced price and quality regulations, do not currently apply to IP-based telephone service. The petition has garnered critical responses from many public interest groups, including Free Press, the Center for Rural Strategies and the National Hispanic Media Coalition, which are concerned that relaxing these regulations will allow telecom companies to avoid regulating IP-based phone services, leaving them vulnerable to price gouging and poor service quality, with weak access for communities of color and rural residents. (For more about the AT&T petition’s potential impact on underserved communities, click here).

Despite public interests groups’ strong warnings that such regulatory relief would disparately impact communities of color, many business-friendly civil rights groups have come out in support of the petition. Groups such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the National Urban League and the Asian American Federation—all of which have received millions in private donations from AT&T—have filed comments with the FCC showing strong support of the company’s proposed plan for its transition to IP-based telephone services. None of their comments specify regulations that should apply to those services.

“The IP Transition will benefit underserved Asian American communities who remain on the wrong side of the digital divide,” wrote several Asian-American advocacy groups in a joint comment filing lead by the Asian American Federation. They explain that “the switch to an all-IP system will bring more competitive choices into the marketplace, which will provide benefits to consumers, including making high-speed broadband more affordable for Asian Americans who have not yet adopted broadband due to cost concerns.”

The National Urban League and National Action Network, both black advocacy organizations, echoed this reasoning in a joint filing: “We support the AT&T Petition as we understand it and urge the Commission to approve it in a manner that advances the interests of consumers of color.” The two groups wrote that the test trials can serve as “a roadmap” for the country’s transition to IP services and should be used to understand how AT&T’s regulatory relief will affect people of color’s “access to affordable, reliable service in the future.”

LULAC agrees, saying broadband brings economic opportunities, educational achievement and job training to Latinos. “Enhancing network capabilities with a smooth transition to all IP-enabled infrastructure will enable Hispanic Americans to multiply these benefits and further improve their ability to build a strong future for themselves and their families,” Paloma Zuleta, LULAC’s director of communications, told The Nation in an email. She went on to explain that policy and regulatory “modernization” that spurs “sustained and long-term private investment in America’s infrastructure” will lead to economic growth.

But history has shown that deregulation tends to hit low-income, working-class people of color most. The $30 billion payday loan industry offers a recent case in point. Payday lenders prey on low-income people by providing small, short-term loans at extremely high interest rates. In order to pay back these loans, plus interest, people often take out further payday loans. The result is millions of mainly poor and working class people of color trapped in a cycle of debt in an already precarious economy. The payday loan industry is a result of Reagan-era deregulation, which relaxed state caps on loan interest rates. This trend continued through the late ’90s as payday loan entrepreneurs capitalized on the country’s spirit of deregulation to get further exemptions from state interest rate caps. For public interest advocates, the impact of deregulation in other industries provide an example as to who will be affected most if the country’s communication industry is further deregulated.

“Deregulation in the communications industry is a lot like deregulation in food safety, worker safety, banks or other sectors,” says Matt Wood, policy director at Free Press. “The companies claim that regulations kill jobs and make the service more expensive. They promise that removing the rules will let them offer better products and more choices. But what we see instead is a series of broken promises, along with increased risks for the people who used to be protected by the rules.”

The extent of AT&T’s influence over some civil rights groups can be measured in the amount of its donations. In the Asian American Federation’s Biennial report last year, it listed AT&T as a “sustainer,” meaning the company contributed between $5,000 and $9,999 dollars. In 2006, the National Urban League received a $1.6 million grant from AT&T to launch five new digital career academies and expand offerings at eleven existing academies for black students, and it received another $1 million in 2008 for a college prep program aimed at black high schoolers. Donations to the National Action Network, if any, are not available, because AT&T is not required to disclose private corporate grants to the organization. Since at least 2004, LULAC has received between $1 million to $1.5 million in grants to fund technology centers for Latinos and a program aimed at curbing Latino dropout rates.

Money isn’t the only thing connecting these groups to AT&T—they share basic institutional ties. For example, the board vice chair of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, which filed positive comments with the Asian American Federation, is formerly AT&T’s Pacific region director of marketing and community affairs. And AT&T’s director of external affairs served on Asian Pacific American Legal Center’s 2012 anniversary dinner committee, which AT&T sponsored. AT&T also sits on LULAC’s Corporate Alliance, which guides LULAC’s programming, and was a major sponsor of its National Legislative Conference and Awards Gala, where the organization discusses the year’s policy priorities. Just this April, the National Action Network honored Tanya Lombard, assistant vice president of public affairs at AT&T, and featured her on telecommunications policy panel at their national convention.

These relationships are not new. Civil rights groups have a long history with telecommunication companies that dates back to workplace discrimination lawsuit settlements in the 1970s. In 1972, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission led a workplace discrimination lawsuit against AT&T for discriminating against women and people of color in hiring, promotions and pay. AT&T and the plaintiffs eventually settled the suit and the company was required to give millions in back pay to thousands of workers and establish internal affirmative action programs. Diversifying its hiring practices strengthened AT&T’s relationships with civil rights groups, who were critical of the company’s hiring discrimination.

A recent investigation led by the Center for Public Integrity revealed a longstanding relationship between telecommunications companies and the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, a Washington, DC–based pro bono law firm that represents civil rights groups on FCC issues. Critics of MMTC say it serves as the “nerve center” for civil rights groups’ actions on telecommunications issues. It was one of the lead organizations in a group filing on the AT&T petition that included the NAACP and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. Over the last twenty years, MMTC has evolved from a volunteer-based organization to a fully-funded nonprofit. According to the Center’s report, most of the organization’s revenue comes through generous donations from companies, like Comcast and AT&T, and the organization’s decade-long business of brokering spectrum license sales and station sales to minority broadcasters on behalf of companies like Verizon and Clear Channel.

Despite these close and longstanding relationships, these groups deny accusations that their ties to AT&T affect their policy agenda. “Our decision to support the AT&T IP Transition Petition was based on the fact that the transformation is already underway in the US and globally,” writes Zuleta of LULAC.

The Asian American Justice Center, which has received donations from AT&T and supports its petition to the FCC, echoed this. “At the end of the day, AAJC is a civil rights group that works on behalf of the Asian American community,” Jason Lagria, telecommunications and broadband policy senior staff attorney for AAJC, told The Nation in an e-mail. “We value our supporters’ opinions, but that support doesn’t change our mission or positions we take.”

To be sure, civil rights groups like AAJC don’t always side with telecom companies. This year the organization urged the FCC to consider how their spectrum auction proceedings marginalized minority-owned broadcasters, a concern AT&T does not share, since it would subvert its goal to buy most of the available spectrum. And on August 9, mainstream civil rights groups and public interest groups claimed a joint victory when the FCC voted in a two-to-one decision to cap interstate prison phone rates to twenty-five cents per minute and ban phone service providers from charging extra fees to connect a call or use a calling card. Groups like the National Council of La Raza, the National Urban League and the NAACP were strong advocates in lowering the cost of these calls.

Some groups find that corporate funding is essential to keep their work moving forward. The National Hispanic Media Coalition, a public interest group opposing AT&T’s proposal, does not receive AT&T funding but has accepted corporate donations from groups like the National Association of Broadcasters. “Certainly if a sponsor wants to tell us their opinion, it means we’re going to listen,” says Jessica Gonzalez, the group’s vice president of policy and legal affairs. “But it doesn’t mean we need to adopt that position.” Gonzalez continues, “It puts Latino-led organizations in a tough position, because we’re trying to benefit our community, but there are never enough resources.” A 2011 report from Hispanics in Philanthropy found that only 1 percent of foundation money went directly to programs benefiting Latinos, even though Latinos made up roughly 13 percent of the population in 2010.

Corporate influence extends into the far reaches of state policymaking. In California, legislators passed a copycat deregulation bill, SB1161, which exempts VOIP-based telephone service from some basic regulations and strips the Public Utilities Commission of regulatory power. The campaign to keep basic consumer protections and regulations was no match for the company’s massive lobbying efforts. AT&T spent $1,902,774 in the nine months that it lobbied the California Public Utilities Commission and the state Capitol over SB 1161. Since 2005, the company has spent roughly $14,000 a day on state lobbying, according to the Los Angeles Times. Organizations such as the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, California State Conference of NAACP and Asian Business Association were outspoken supporters of the bill, citing reasons similar to some civil rights groups’ support of AT&T’s FCC petition.

“AT&T has all the grassroots support money can buy,” says Mark Toney, executive director of TURN, a utility reform organization. TURN worked with sixty-five organizations in opposing the bill—none of which received funding to support their work opposing SB 1161. “Anyone can look at the list of bill supporters and see who is getting money and who is not.” The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has received $30,000 from AT&T every year since 2006, according to TURN’s analysis of AT&T’s 2011 tax documents. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, California Black Chamber of Commerce and the Asian Business Center also share a $287,000 California Emerging Technology Fund grant, an effort supported by AT&T and Verizon as a condition of their respective 2005 mergers with SBC and MCI.

Public interest advocates say the fight for media reform and media justice is increasingly an economic one. “When you talk about dismantling this kind of monopoly power, you’re really talking about restructuring our whole economy,” Robert McChesney, professor of communications at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times, explained at the National Conference for Media Reform this year.

Advocates say the stakes are high and emphasize a need for unity among people of color. “I’ve spoken with several folks and made my personal plea out of respect that we really need you,” Joseph Torres, senior external affairs director at Free Press and co-author of News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media, says of civil rights groups. “At times it’s a little painful because a lot of the positions some [civil rights groups] have taken on these telecom issues are the wrong positions.” While Torres says there should be room for debate between civil rights and public interest groups, “the policies telecom companies are trying to pass would have a negative impact on our community.” For Torres, aside from the affordability and service reliability issues in the petition, he sees it as another corporate ploy that would weaken the voices of people of color in this new technological era.

“We’ve been fighting to democratize traditional media from corporate gatekeepers who demonize our community,” Torres continued. “We need to ensure they don’t continue to act as corporate gatekeepers.”

After ten years of fighting for basic telephone service, Delgado refuses to fall for company ploys. For the last two years, she has worked as a parent leader with Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement, where she mobilizes parents at San Bernardino schools to testify at town hall meetings and lobby legislators on policy issues like California’s AT&T bill last year.

“These companies need to be stopped,” she says. “It’s difficult for companies to understand that it’s important for us to have reliable telephone service at home. The prices that they offer are too high. We need services that are affordable and reliable.”

For Delgado, the solution is clear. Now she waits for civil rights leaders to catch up.

AT&T’s Deregulation Campaign

AT&T Inc. CEO Randall Stephenson. Reuters/Brendan McDermid

AT&T Inc. CEO Randall Stephenson. Reuters/Brendan McDermid

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June 10, 2013
The Nation

Since 2010, AT&T has been waging a deregulation campaign in several states across the country while aiming to move its traditional, wired telephone services to Internet Protocol (IP)-based services, which transmit voice communications digitally. With the help of corporate “bill mill” the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and support from companies like AT&T, state legislators have introduced a series of “model” bills aimed at preventing regulation of IP-based services in more than thirty states across the country, from Idaho to Georgia, Texas to New Hampshire. As the country moves to an IP-based telephone network, AT&T wants to completely retire its wired services and shed critical regulatory obligations that currently apply to legacy services. Now AT&T has taken that mission to the federal level.

Last November, AT&T filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requesting regulatory relief in order to move its traditional wireline telephone services to IP-based services. The petition reflects many of the same principles as the state-level model bills, which strip states of any enforcement power over service quality and prices, and has been endorsed by ALEC. It would set a dangerous policy precedent at the FCC, as IP-based telephone services do not fall under any clear regulatory framework, and could have a dramatic impact on the future of basic telephone services. Public interest advocates say these changes would affect low-income people, people of color and rural communities most.

Although people are increasingly moving to wireless-only telephone services, roughly 17.5 million Americans depend on only landline service, according to the most recent statistics from the FCC released in 2010. Both the FCC and state Public Utilities Commissions regulate landlines: the FCC oversees interstate service and state commissions oversee intrastate service. This regulatory authority dates back to the early twentieth century and government efforts to foster competition in a telephone market that AT&T dominated. Since then, the federal and state regulation of wired telephone service requires companies like AT&T to offer basic services, such as emergency calling and directory assistance, and to ensure that customers have access to affordable, quality phone service. This set of “legacy” regulations has expanded telephone service to 96 percent of Americans at relatively affordable rates, but none of these landline regulations currently apply to IP-based service.

AT&T’s petition to move its traditional telephone services to IP-based services seems benign enough, but a closer look reveals troubling ramifications. In its petition, AT&T is asking the FCC to run tests of IP-based networks in certain, currently undetermined areas where it will phase out its landline services. In exchange for testing these networks and expanding its IP-based service, AT&T is asking the FCC for regulatory relief, claiming that the “burden” of these regulations is so costly as to prevent it from investing in next generation of networks.

“The trials we propose are intended to ensure that this transition takes place as smoothly as possible,” wrote Michael Balmoris, an AT&T spokesperson, in an e-mail to The Nation “They will allow consumers, service providers, and policy makers to identify issues that are raised by this transition, determine the best course to proceed going forward, and ensure that no consumer gets left behind in this transition.”

But the petition threatens to shed the very regulations that would protect consumers, say public interest advocates. Those “monopoly-era regulatory obligations,” AT&T argues, make “no sense” because they treat incumbents, like AT&T, as dominant providers in an IP-based broadband market that others lead. True, AT&T is not leading the broadband market, but it’s hardly struggling. Just last year AT&T was listed as the top Fortune 500 telecommunications company, with annual revenue of more than $126 billion.

“Nothing is stopping them from investing in the infrastructure,” says Edyael Casaperalta, program and research associate at the Center for Rural Strategies, an advocacy group that has been critical of the petition. “They certainly have the money to.”

In fact, the petition was filed just as the company announced a $14 billion dollar three-year plan to expand “U-Verse,” its brand of IP services, and its wireless and business networks. In a press release, the company said that the project would provide “high-speed IP Internet access via IP wireline and/or 4G LTE” to 99 percent of customer locations by 2014.

Many public interest advocates fear that the petition is a way to avoid regulating IP-based telephone services. “They are trying to start with a blank state,” says Olivia Wein, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. “That makes me nervous to flush all the rules.” Wein doubts that the company will accept regulation of these services after relaxing them during the test trials.

Given AT&T’s track record of providing slower broadband speeds to rural areas and tribal lands, many are skeptical that the company will act on its pledge to improve services for the entire country. Across the country, nearly 25 percent of rural Americans lack access to basic broadband, according to the FCC’s Eighth Broadband Progress Report. Fewer than 10 percent of Native Americans have access to broadband, according to a report by Native Public Media and the Open Technology Initiative at the New America Foundation. “We think the onus is on the FCC to ensure the focus is on consumers and competition, and to ensure the next generation of technology provides people access to reliable and affordable telephone service,” says Jessica Gonzalez, vice president of policy and legal affairs with the National Hispanic Media Coalition. “It’s important for poor people and people in rural areas who are often difficult to reach, where the business case to reach them isn’t as strong.” In a conference call last year, Randall L. Stephenson, president and CEO of AT&T, admitted that the company has yet to find an “economically viable” solution to bring broadband into rural America.

Infrastructure access issues aren’t the only aspects of the petition that concern public interest advocates. Another major issue is AT&T’s request to waive its obligation to provide universal service, a fundamental principle in the Communications Act of 1934, which extends communications services to rural and low-income areas. To implement this, the FCC established a set of policies and a Universal Service Fund, which is paid for by contributions from companies like AT&T. That fund supports several programs, two of which provide subsidized telephone installation and service. But in its petition to the FCC, rather than being obligated to provide universal service, the company is asking to move to a “procurement model,” in which companies would volunteer to provide services to rural and low-income areas, and therefore access universal service funds.

Without a universal service obligation, public interest advocates are concerned the company will have no incentive to serve rural and low-income areas. “Although AT&T argues that deregulation is a way to increase investment and build out,” writes the National Hispanic Media Coalition in its filed comments, “it is often the underserved and hardest to reach that are left out when profit maximization is the only consideration driving investment decisions.” The loss of the universal service obligation would affect a significant portion of the roughly 12 million households who reported receiving these universal service fund benefits in 2012, according to the Universal Service Administrative Company’s annual report.

Even households above the poverty threshold could be potentially priced out. Though an increasing number of people are using cellphones as their main telephone line, many low-income people and people of color choose landline phone service because it is “more reliable, affordable, and offers better service quality,” according to comments from the Greenlining Institute, a racial justice policy and advocacy group. About 90 percent of those age 65 and over live in a household with landline service, according to a 2012 report from the Center for Disease Control. Roughly 22 percent of Asians, 18 percent of blacks and 16 percent of Latinos have both wireless and landline telephone service, according to the same report. The price difference is rather stark. The least expensive AT&T family plan for cellphone service costs at least $59.99 a month for two lines with 550 voice minutes and no data, while a standard AT&T landline service with unlimited local calling costs about $30 a month, according to the company’s website.

Low-income communities wouldn’t be the only ones facing steeper prices, less protection and fewer options without these legacy regulations. Rural people who have historically been redlined out of reliable service from the telecommunications companies would also be impacted. “By requesting to retire [basic phone] services, AT&T is essentially asking the FCC to shut down the most accessible and reliable communications tool in rural America,” the Rural Broadband Policy Group wrote in their comments to the FCC. At least 14.5 million rural residents lack the broadband connection required for IP-based services, which means “millions of rural people risk an absolute loss of communication.”

The regulatory “relief” that AT&T wants to accompany its full IP transition could also impact basic rules and services that most people take for granted, like truth-in-billing, privacy, service reliability, protection from price gouging and protections from unauthorized charges. These regulations are covered only under Title II of the Communications Act, which ensures that telecommunications service providers like AT&T adhere to basic consumer protections. But IP-based services are not yet protected under Title II of the Act, which makes users vulnerable to exploitative corporate practices.

As AT&T fights this battle at the FCC, many of the ALEC-approved model bills with similar aims have been passed into law. One of the most recent victories for AT&T was in California, where last year legislators passed SB 1161, a bill that mirrors the FCC petition. Just as AT&T’s petition to the FCC seeks to do nationally, the passage of SB 1161 approved the deregulation of IP-based phone services in the state, eliminating any state role in regulating Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and IP-based telephone services. This removed the California Public Utilities Commission’s authority to ensure service quality and require companies like AT&T to provide reliable service to rural areas.

SB 1161 was just another blow to the state’s already bruised communication landscape. In 2006, the California Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously to allow companies like AT&T to raise telephone prices at will. Since then, AT&T’s price for landline phone service has leaped from $10.69 to $23 per month, and the monthly price for measured service, which charges a fixed rate for a limited number of calls, has skyrocketed 222 percent—from $5.70 to $18.35, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Advocates say it’s too soon to tell how SB 1161 will shake out and are waiting to see how the bill will affect service reliability and prices. “Enforcement is going to be the biggest issue,” explains Ana Montes, director of organizing at the Utility Reform Network, a statewide utilities consumer protection group based in San Francisco. Montes says she has already received complaints from callers who say they were forced to move to VoIP-based telephone services, which are largely unregulated.

As advocates wait to see the long-term costs of deregulation in states around the country, it seems some of the FCC’s commissioners are already smitten with AT&T’s plan. In a speech at conservative think tank the Hudson Institute in March, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai praised the idea of an All-IP Pilot Program and criticized twentieth-century regulations that hinder innovation and investment. He continued, explaining that a path that “clings to the past” would lead us to “a less competitive future” where “innovative companies would avoid the voice business because of regulatory barriers.”

In February, during a speech at the Rural Telecom Industry Meeting and Expo, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel echoed this, saying, “We are all wrestling with applying the laws of the present to the networks of the future, and we must make choices that inspire confidence and private investment in our nation’s infrastructure.”

For public interest advocates, the petition skirts the basic tenets of the 1996 Telecommunications Act’s universal service provision, an update from the 1934 Act, which guarantees nondiscriminatory, reliable and affordable communications access across the country. “Is what they’re asking for going to get us ubiquitous, uniform service? Will people be left behind in this picture?” asks the National Consumer Law Center’s Wein. “If there’s no duty to serve with some affordable connectivity, you will have people who are left out of this great transformation. Once again we will have a communications network that will need help reaching everyone and be ubiquitous. I think that should be the goal for the nation. You need people to be connected.”

On May 10, the FCC responded to the petition with a call for more comments from stakeholders on potential trials of landline to IP-based network transitions, a move that “disappointed” AT&T according to its public policy blog. The FCC will continue to take public comments on the petition until it reaches a decision, but there’s no definitive date by when it needs to decide. You can submit comments on the FCC’s public comment page at fcc.gov/comments.

The Right to Live Again

The exercise yard at the Central California Women's Facility.Photo credit: Central California Women's Facility

The exercise yard at the Central California Women’s Facility.
Photo credit: Central California Women’s Facility

November 4, 2009
Colorlines Magazine

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Michelle Freeman’s life hit rock bottom when she first started using crack cocaine in 1984. She lost all contact with her family and friends and became homeless because of her addiction.

“I don’t think back then that I was living,” says the 50-year-old mother of two. “From that first time on, I was chasing that high. I lost contact with my children, lost contact with life, actually.”

After cycling in and out of jail and prison three times, Freeman was last released from Chino’s California Institution for Women in 2005. She was dropped off at her parole officer’s workplace on the corner of 6th and G streets in San Bernardino, an area known as a local drug market. Her parole officer told her that if she didn’t find a place to stay within the next two days, she would have to go back into the system.

Freeman was devastated. She had only $200, a standard payment the prison gives all prisoners on the day of their release, she recalls, and no place to go. She and her release advisor inside had been planning for months on her finishing parole in Los Angeles. But because of an error in the system, Freeman was told the day of her release that she was going to San Bernardino, not Los Angeles.

Then she remembered a business card she had kept for Kim Carter, the founder and director of A Time for Change Foundation, a service and housing organization for homeless and formerly incarcerated women with children. She had heard Carter speak about the group’s work during a pre-release program in prison.

“Of all the people who came there, her card was the only card that I kept. She was the only one that I listened to,” Freeman recalls.

She soon entered a rehabilitation program run by the foundation. Through the program, Michelle not only became clean and sober, but also worked with state lawmakers to pass a bill in 2005 to strengthen programs to help currently and formerly incarcerated parents stay connected to their children.

But as Freeman now approaches her four-year anniversary of sober living outside of prison, San Bernardino is enacting a city ordinance barring the establishment of new transitional homes for parolees, probationers and sex offenders.

“We can’t feed our families. We can’t get a job. Without the establishment of new group homes, what are we going to do?” asks Freeman, now project coordinator and health policy advocate with A Time for Change.

San Bernardino’s ordinance comes as a federal court has ordered California to devise a plan to reduce prison crowding. As a result, prisons may soon be releasing more people from the system even as the state threatens to cut back the very programs former inmates need to stay out of prison.

The new policy increases the strain on programs like A Time for Change. As one of only a few licensed group homes in the city, the organization runs two facilities at full capacity and receives several calls each day from formerly incarcerated mothers, many of whom are forced to live under bridges or in cars.

“Instead of the state investing more in services, they pass a law that says you’re violating the law if you support women coming back to their community,” says Zaheva S. Knowles, director of communications and government affairs at A Time for Change Foundation.

California’s prison population faces cruel conditions on the inside and political alienation on the outside. In August, a three-judge federal court panel ruled that overcrowding and inadequate housing and health care facilities amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment.” The court ordered the state to reduce the incarcerated population by 43,000 prisoners over the next two years. Currently, California’s 33 adult prisons operate at 188 percent of their capacity, forcing inmates to sleep in converted gyms, libraries and recreational spaces.

But efforts to shrink the prison population have been blocked by political resistance to releasing supposedly dangerous criminals. Matthew Cate, Secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said releasing prisoners would pose “a significant threat to public safety.” State Attorney General Jerry Brown stoked the fire by saying the judges did “not recognize the imperatives of public safety, nor the challenges of incarcerating criminals, many of whom are deeply disturbed.”

Activists and advocates say stories about violent felons like Phillip Garrido, a man who kidnapped and raped a young girl, are being used to paint a distorted picture that allows lawmakers to abandon reform initiatives like investing in treatment programs and amending the draconian Three Strikes sentencing laws.

Moreover, both Republicans and Democrats have a political incentive to avoid bold prison reforms. Many politicians are looking to run for other offices once their terms are up and don’t want to look “soft” on crime.

Nonetheless, after a failed attempt by Jerry Brown and Governor Schwarzenegger to appeal the court decision, California submitted a plan to comply with the order. The proposal would have reduced the prison population by only 23,000 prisoners—half of what was mandated by the court. The proposal would essentially —build more prison cells, transfer some 2,500 prisoners out of state and deport 600 undocumented people. The court rejected the proposal, saying that releasing prisoners does not threaten public safety. The justices warned the state they will be forced to take over the prison system as they did with the prison health care system in 2006 if California does not present a plan that complies with the orders. Governor Schwarzenegger is still pursuing a federal appeal of the mandate.

As lawmakers and the court battle over how to reduce the prison population, activists and advocates say the measures supported by the Governor and State would negatively impact prisoners inside and those just getting out of prison.

They say shifting prisoners out of state is detrimental to prisoners’ rehabilitation. Relatives and friends who don’t have the money to travel would have a more difficult time visiting people inside, which advocates say could break apart family ties, a critical piece of a prisoner’s social support and rehabilitation inside.

“There are thousands of people out there who have changed, but it’s not lucrative to recognize that,” says Manuel LaFontaine, an organizer with All of Us or None, a network of formerly incarcerated activists. Since his own release in 2003, LaFontaine has been working to remove employment and housing barriers facing people who have been incarcerated.

Advocates also point out that, aside from the ethical issues, prison reform saves taxpayer dollars. The National Treatment Improvement Evaluation Study found that it costs less per client to run a community-based drug treatment program than to operate such a program inside a prison facility. In the long run, according to a report by the Justice Policy Institute, community-based treatment reduces crime and incarceration rates.
While the state’s plan claims to include reforming the parole system to facilitate rehabilitation for former prisoners, the California Department of Corrections is dropping funding for education and rehabilitation programs as part of a projected $1.2 billion cut to the overall prison budget.

Lacking social supports inside and outside prison, some 40,000 people in San Bernardino are facing bleak prospects as they struggle to complete their parole programs.
“It’s so important that there are group homes and transition homes for us when we get out there,” says Freeman. The post-release services she received were crucial for her transition by helping her regain stability and reconnect with her family. “The successful [programs] are the ones that should be allowed to expand and thrive, not shut down or stopped from being built,” she says. “It’s immoral. It’s someone’s basic human right to live again.”

Could Facebook Save His Life?

facebookMarch 15, 2010
Colorlines Magazine

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Like many people in their 30s, Efrén Paredes Jr. has a lot of friends online (more than 3,400 on Facebook). Unlike most people online, Paredes is incarcerated at a Michigan state prison, and he has no access to the Internet.

Nevertheless, his Facebook account is frequently updated with links to news on youth incarceration, immigration and other topics affecting Latinos. His Twitter and mySpace accounts are equally active with tidbits on what he’s feeling in the moment. And his website and blog are brimming with information ranging from updates on his case to Latin American politics. In response, people across the country are now writing letters and signing online petitions on his behalf asking the Michigan governor to release him.

To pull this off, Paredes relies on pre-Web 2.0 tools: the phone, a typewriter, even pen and paper.

He has regular phone calls with family members and supporters, who decide what links to post about his case and other issues on his Facebook account. Paredes writes blog entries using a prison typewriter. His family and members of his advocacy committee, The Injustice Must End, then post his writing online.

Most recently, they’ve also started a social justice directory project as a fan page on Facebook called “Efrén’s Social Justice Directory.” Through the directory, progressive organizations can connect and share information about their work.

“I feel like I’m helping to breathe life into something that…gives voice to people who don’t have the courage to speak for themselves or the ability,” said Paredes in a phone conversation from prison last November.

While there are a handful of prisoners who maintain active websites with the help of family members, it is uncommon to see efforts on this scale, said Ashley Nellis, policy director at The Sentencing Project, an organization that advocates for prison reform.

Like many people living outside of prison, Paredes uses his Facebook and Twitter accounts for different purposes.

His Facebook page is teeming with political information, while his Twitter account is more of a collection of personal insights into the prison system and spiritual survival. One such tweet reads: “Crushing the silence of darkness with the reverberating voice of consciousness.”

Paredes, who’s 36, has been serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole since 1989, when an all-white jury found him guilty of killing a manager at the Michigan grocery store where he worked. According to his family, Paredes was an honors student, and the conviction was primarily based on testimonies from other teenagers, one of which was later recanted. His 1989 trial also took place in the wake of allegations that five young men of color had raped a jogger in Central Park. The separate case ignited a racialized media frenzy about the need to punish youth more severely. (For more about Paredes’s case and young people of color sentenced to life in prison, click here.)

In prison now for 21 years, Paredes has earned a doctorate in religious philosophy and certification as a Braille translator. He’s also tutored other prisoners and led two Latino political education organizations, working with fellow prisoners to hold regular Raza Studies classes and host progressive activists to speak about their work. With the help of his community offline and online, he’s reached out to activists and organizers who support prison reform and an end to life without parole for youth.

Through his activism inside, he linked up with Favianna Rodriguez, a Bay Area-based activist, artist and cofounder of Presente.org, an online Latino advocacy organization. Paredes became a founding member of Presente.org, and information on their campaigns is regularly posted on his Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Paredes, Rodriguez said, has helped her understand “how you can activate a national base of people who can be sympathetic to your cause. I think that’s what good organizing is. You push to make your message universal. He does that.”

Paredes’s entry into online organizing began in 1997, when his family launched 4efren.com with information not only on his case but also on the issue of youth serving life sentences without parole. The shift in recent years to social networking sites was a great help for him. It has allowed him to reach more people, specifically Latinos, with information on his case and the larger inequities affecting the Latino community.

Last year, the Facebook Data Team reported that about 9 percent of its users are Latinos, and since 2007, Latino Facebook users have grown faster than the social network’s overall growth. A recent Pew Internet and American Life Project report showed that 18 percent of Twitter users are Latinos. “We [Latinos] are a force to be reckoned with. We need to learn to harness that and do the best with it. On every front I try to do that,” said Paredes.

Through the work online, Paredes has connected with different student groups like MEChA, a national Chicano student organization, and he’s received the support of well-known Chicano professors and activists like Carlos Muñoz Jr., Betita Martínez and Rodolfo Acuña. Bloggers like Nezua of The Unapologetic Mexican, have also supported his release through blogging and vlogging.

Offline, his advocacy committee uses cell phones at rallies and organizing meetings. At Michigan State University, Paredes spoke directly to more than 70 students at a rally through a cell phone amplified by a speakerphone about the criminal justice system.

Thanks in part to his savvy online activism and the committee’s on-the-ground organizing, more than 150 supporters showed up to Paredes’s public parole hearing in 2008. The Robert G. Cotton Correctional Facility, where the hearing was held, was standing-room only. Although parole hearings are usually just one and a half hours long, his was nine hours, according to a spokesperson for the Michigan Parole Board. Supporters stood for the hearing wearing “Free Efrén” T-shirts and holding signs as the parole board considered his release. The board, however, refused to release him.

Even with a successful campaign and thousands of supporters, prison presents unexpected challenges. Last December, Paredes was put into solitary confinement after some officers accused him of being involved in “criminal activity.” Officials with the Michigan Department of Corrections said they would not disclose the details of the case until there are actual charges.

Now, he writes his blogs and essays by hand and puts them in the mail to his family and friends. Where the turnover used to be a few days, it now takes about a week to get his writing posted. He was also transferred to a different prison after the allegations were made. The facility is more than three hours away from his family, which makes their in-person visits a lot less frequent.

With roughly 60 core members and thousands of supporters online and offline, Paredes and his supporters have not given up, and he remains committed to the possibilities of the Internet as a political tool. “This is how we empower the community. This is how we give political voice to the Latino community and unite us in a way that we have never been united before,” he said.

Fighting For Their Lives

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March 15, 2010
Colorlines Magazine

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Efrén Paredes Jr. was a 15-year-old honor roll student in rural Michigan when he was convicted of killing an assistant manager at the grocery store where he worked and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Today, he is one of almost 1,775 prisoners who were sentenced as youth and locked up for life without parole, according to a report released by The Sentencing Project, a prison reform research and advocacy organization. A staggering 77 percent of those youth are Black or Latino.

This June, the Supreme Court will decide whether young people can be sentenced to life without parole for crimes that didn’t result in a death. Separately, several states are also considering abolishing life without parole for youth.

The ruling will set a major legal precedent that may affect cases like Paredes’s. In the meantime, Paredes, who is now 36, is hoping that Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm will grant his commutation request by the end of her term this year and release him.

Paredes has been in prison since 1989, when he was accused of robbing the store in rural St. Joseph, Michigan and killing Rick Tetzlaff. Three local youth admitted to being involved in the crime and said Paredes fired the fatal shot. After a one-week trial, Paredes was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Jason Williamson, a 16-year old white youth, received six months in juvenile prison. Alex and Eric Mui, 16- and 17-year-old Asian brothers, received 18 to 45 years in adult prison but have since been released. Eric Mui recanted his original statement five months later.

The case against Paredes had other questionable elements. The jury foreman worked with the widow of the assistant manager who was murdered. Store records indicated that Paredes had left work, and his family testified he was home close to half an hour before the robbery occurred. A white T-shirt with red stains that police found in Paredes’s home ended up being marked by red shoe polish.

Paredes claims that he was made an example of Michigan’s “get tough” approach to youth crime. His trial took place in the wake of the Central Park Jogger case, where a white Manhattan investment banker was allegedly raped by five Black and Latino youth, who were declared innocent of the crime more than a decade later. Paredes seemed to fit the mainstream representation of a violent youth in his small, white, Michigan town.

With media portrayals fueling national anxieties in 1989, lawmakers, police and conservative media pundits warned of the danger of a growing generation of violent youth. Throughout the 1990s, harsher sentencing laws required punishing youth more severely through the adult criminal justice system, and this resulted in striking racial disparities.

Today, Black youth are sent to adult courts at about 10 times the rate of white youth, and Latino youth are 43 percent more likely than white youth to be tried in adult court, according to recent studies, including a 2009 report by the Campaign for Youth Justice and the National Council of La Raza. Michigan, Paredes’s home state, ranks second in the country for the highest number of youth offenders serving life without parole. Many of these young people then live out their sentences in adult prison, where they are more vulnerable to physical assault, including rape.

Attorneys argued last November before the Supreme Court that in cases without murder sentencing youth to life without parole amounts to cruel and unusual punishment and disproportionately incarcerates youth of color.

“In nearly every other context, children are seen as different than adults. That shouldn’t be ignored when it comes to punishing kids, particularly because there is a lot of discretion when it comes to who is being punished,” said Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal services organization. Stevenson was a lead attorney on one of the cases heard by the Supreme Court.

Attorneys representing people who were issued life sentences as children and other advocates believe that sentencing youth to life without parole sends the message that youth are beyond reform. They argue that youth are particularly more able to radically transform their lives. “Given the proper attention and care, we can be hopeful their lives can be turned around,” said Ashley Nellis, a research analyst at The Sentencing Project.

Across the country, legislative and judicial initiatives might also help curb these punitive sentencing laws that treat children and teen-aged youth as adults. Florida, Nebraska, Louisiana, California and Michigan are all considering state laws to abolish life without parole for youth. And a federal bill requiring regular parole reviews for juvenile life without parole cases is slowly moving through Congress.

The United States is the only country in the world that still sentences children to life without parole. According to a joint report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, about 60 percent of youth sentenced to life without parole are first-time offenders, and about 25 percent of these youths were convicted of felony murder, which means they were present during the murder but did not kill anyone themselves.

Many youth who get life without parole don’t have the ability to pay for a private attorney, according to a report by the Equal Justice Initiative. Most of them come from low-income families, and some come from intense poverty. Many of them come from abusive homes and are more vulnerable to getting swept up into violence.

Even with a private attorney, the Paredes family said their lawyer felt pressured against defending Paredes too aggressively because of the media attention in their small Michigan town. When prosecutors introduced a song from NWA, a popular hip-hop group in the 1980s, to suggest that the lyrics demonstrated Paredes’s propensity towards violence, the argument flew by in court with hardly any rebuttal, said Velia Koppenhoefer, Paredes’s mother.

Paredes, who had dreams of going to college in business, wasn’t the only one affected by the sentencing.

“It’s the worst experience anyone can have in their life to see their child taken away from them, and there’s nothing you can do,” says Koppenhoefer. Now 51 years old, she suffers from high blood pressure and fibromyalgia, a painful muscle condition, which keeps her visits with Paredes at a minimum. Her husband suffers from heart disease. “We’re emotionally stressed out and financially as well,” she says.

Stevenson and Nellis both said that a favorable ruling by the Supreme Court would eventually benefit wrongful youth conviction cases like that of Paredes by challenging judicial and public notions of how to respond to children who have been charged with a crime.

“It’s really important that we rethink the way we have punished children and pushed them into the juvenile and adult systems. It’s destructive for these kids and their families, particularly communities of color,” said Stevenson.

Today at 36, Paredes has earned a doctorate in religious philosophy, certification as a Braille translator and has led two Latino political education organizations from the inside. But last December, after more than 20 years in prison, Paredes found himself accused of criminal activity by corrections officers, put into solitary confinement and transferred to a prison facility farther away from his family. He remains hopeful.

“I think you have to make a decision. Are you going to evolve as a person or let this defeat you? I’ve chosen to not be defeated by this,” he said in a phone conversation from prison last November.

Health concerns raised over proposed pesticide

Marilyn Lynds talks about problems she has experienced from a farm across the street from her Portrero Road home in Moss Landing. (Photos by Tarmo Hannula)

Marilyn Lynds talks about problems she has experienced from a farm across the street from her Portrero Road home in Moss Landing. (Photos by Tarmo Hannula)

June 12, 2010
Register-Pajaronian

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While most local residents plan family vacations each spring, Marilyn Lynds makes plans to avoid drift from fumigation.

Lynds has lived on the edge of a strawberry field in Moss Landing for about 15 years. When the grower makes plans to fumigate, she has two days to find a temporary place to live for her husband and teenage daughter. The grower typically fumigates in three‐day rotations to prep the land for that year’s strawberry crop.

“It doesn’t just happen over a few days,” Lynds said. “It’s usually over the course of three months.”

For those months, Lynds said she and her family are in and out of their home and stay with friends in the area. Soon residents like Lynds and other local strawberry farmworkers will have to wrangle with a new fumigant methyl iodide. Against the concerns of some scientists and environmental groups, the Department of Pesticide Regulation plans to replace methyl bromide, a fumigant that was found to deplete the ozone layer, with methyl iodide to meet international environmental treaty standards.

DPR and local growers say the rigorous regulations on the chemical make the fumigant safe to use. But farmworker advocates and environmental groups say saving the ozone layer might risk the health of farmworkers and bystanders if methyl iodide is released into local strawberry fields. Some scientists say the chemical is so toxic they only use it in very small amounts with the utmost caution to induce cancer cells in test rats at research labs.

Lab tests with rats have shown that methyl iodide causes thyroid cancer, miscarriage and damage to the reproductive system. Although the effects on humans are less developed, case studies of people exposed to the chemical show it can damage the central nerve system , according to the DPR. This puts residents like Lynds who suffers from post‐polio syndrome, a condition that weakens the muscular system in people who have previously suffered from polio, a virus that can affect the central nervous system at an increased risk.

The issue has become especially heated in California because of the breadth of its lucrative agricultural industry and its legacy of intense fumigation. In Watsonville, the industry is no different. According to the 2008 Santa Cruz County agricultural commissioner’s crop report, there are about 3,287 acres of strawberry fields in Santa Cruz County valued at $160,378,000 in gross income. About 19 percent of Watsonville workers help operate the industry. “The strawberry and berry industry provides a majority of jobs in the area,” Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau president John Eiskamp said. “The valley is based on the agricultural industry . It brings a lot of money to the valley. It brings a lot of income into the valley.”

The new pesticide known in the commercial market as Midas was approved by the Bush administration as a fumigant despite the concerns of environmental groups, farmworkers and 54 distinct scientists , five of whom are Nobel laureates in chemistry.

Recently, 33 assemblymen and state senators have come out against methyl iodide, saying it is too dangerous for California’s fields. Bill Monning, 27th District Assemblyman, is one of the state’s stronger critics of the pesticide.

“It appears that commercial enterprise has outweighed public health interests in this case,” Monning stated in a recent press release. “I hope that (DPR) will reconsider its decision.”

The state is putting additional barriers on the application of the pesticide. Under the new rules, it can be used a half‐mile away from occupied schools, hospitals and prisons. DPR also increased the exposure levels from Environmental Protection Agency standards for bystanders by 118 parts per billion over a 24‐hour period, and 97 parts per billion for workers over an eight‐hour period. But the state levels are still more than 120 times higher than DPR scientists’ suggestion of 0.8 parts per billion for workers over an eight‐hour period.

Farmworker advocates and environmental groups are doubtful that even with the stricter regulations, methyl iodide is safe to use in California’s strawberry fields. Aside from the health effects from direct and chronic exposure, it can result in toxic levels of iodine in groundwater.

“(Iodine) is a nutrient as a tiny amount, but it can become toxic to the thyroid gland in large quantities,” said Anne Katten, an industrial hygienist and worker safety specialist with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, a farmworker advocacy organization.

Even with the most careful application, there are always accidents, she said.
“Historically things have gone wrong in fumigation,” Katten said. “The weather can change, there can be equipment malfunction , errors in how things are applied , and tarps can rip.”

In its most recent report, published in 2007, DPR found that 300 of 318 pesticide incidents involved agricultural fumigants . Locally, there are at least two cases against the DPR in which a farmworker suffered from pesticide exposure.

Still, Watsonville strawberry growers feel confident that the added regulations and limitations will make the fumigant safe to use, even if they would just as soon keep using methyl “No one is trying to make anyone sick,” said David Kegebein , an independent strawberry grower contracted with Driscoll’s Berries, one of Watsonville’s largest berry production companies.

Kegebein has lived in a home surrounded by berry fields for years and doesn’t feel it is unsafe. His concern is keeping up the pace of production to meet consumer demands. With a broader range of materials to sterilize the soil, growers like Kegebein can produce berries at a faster rate.

The lack of good‐quality land available in places with favorable climates, such as Watsonville , makes it difficult to produce strawberries at a sufficient pace, Kegebein said. Fumigants help growers like Kegebein produce crops at a faster rate, employ more workers and “The bottom line is, if we’re going to produce food and feed people, we’ve got to have materials to get the job done,” Kegebein said.

Farmworker advocates say higher production isn’t worth risking the health of workers and residents.

“We can’t keep looking for replacement chemicals,” said Paul Towers, California state director of Pesticide Watch. “We have to look for healthy, sustainable farming systems.”
Environmental Protection Agency pesticide scientists may re‐evaluate methyl iodide for general use, depending on the outcome of the external review and risk assessment. The public has until June 29 to comment on the proposed use of methyl iodide . If the chemical is approved for use, it will begin to be used in California fields in the fall.

Corporate Welfare

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April Goméz-Rodriguez with her three children.

July 27, 2011
Santa Fe Reporter

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April Goméz-Rodriguez knows what to feed her family of five: olive oil instead of vegetable oil, fish instead of marked-down ground beef. But with a meager income supplemented by food stamps, she can’t always afford to make the right decisions.

“The one thing I get anxious about is going to the grocery store,” she says. “I would pick and choose what I would get. But I wouldn’t limit myself about things we needed, like vegetables and bread. I would make sure we had enough.”

Goméz-Rodriguez and her new husband are supporting three children on two jobs, at which they make a combined $18 per hour but she anticipates that, in the coming months, she’ll lose the federal food stamp benefits that help her pay for those vegetables. She’s now returning to a full-time job as an accounting specialist at an Albuquerque country club and soon will have to report a higher income to the state than when she was on unpaid maternity leave.

“I believe it’s a system that keeps you screwed or screwed,” Goméz-Rodriguez says. If you’re poor, she explains, “They might help you. But if you make too much, you don’t get help.”

The “they” in this scenario is the US Department of Agriculture, which administers food stamp benefits to low-income families and individuals nationwide. But there’s another player with a big stake in the food-stamp industry: JPMorgan Chase.

More than 428,000 New Mexicans rely on an Electronic Benefits Transfer card to access benefits that help pay for their groceries. JPMorgan Chase, the largest provider of EBT services in the country, has managed to turn this plastic lifeline into a thriving business by contracting with state governments to run the EBT program.

New Mexico, along with 25 other states across the country, contracts with the bank to provide EBT card services to participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as the food stamp program.

The state’s current contract with the bank rings in at $13.7 million dollars over eight years, which amounts to approximately $1.7 million per year for the bank. New Mexico has contracted with JPMorgan Chase since 1998.

The number of caseloads and the projected caseload growth determine the contract price so the greater the number of food stamp recipients, the greater the bank’s contract value.

By a variety of measures, New Mexico is a particularly fertile ground for EBT service providers. According to the US Census Bureau’s most recent figures, New Mexico tied with Washington, DC, for the third-highest poverty rate in the nation: 17.5 percent.

Between April 2010 and April 2011, the state also saw a 21.2 percent increase in the number of food stamp recipients, from 353,748 to 428,732, according to a June 30 USDA report.

JPMorgan’s contract has increased accordingly: On May 12, the bank received a $500,000 bump “to cover increase in caseload,” according to the New Mexico Sunshine Portal. And though EBT contracts aren’t the bank’s only source of income, JPMorgan Chase Bank, National Association, the subsidiary that handles electronic financial services, including EBT contracts, earned a whopping $11.8 billion in net income last year.

Critics of this partnership say JPMorgan Chase’s for-profit model is at cross purposes with a government program designed to help the state’s poorest citizens. They point to the bank’s hand in the foreclosure crisis and $25 billion federal bailout paid with taxpayer money that has left 14 million people unemployed and 44 million dependent on food stamps.

“It is shocking and offensive that they are now profiting from the unemployment that they helped to cause,” Mary Bottari, director of the Real Economy Project with the Center for Media and Democracy, tells SFR. “They get paid more money the higher the unemployment rate goes. There are some services that should not be privatized, and this is one of them.”

Despite these concerns, the company says that “outsourcing” these services actually increases efficiency and cuts costs for states like New Mexico.

“For governments, [EBT cards] are a tool for cost reduction, fraud control, greater accountability and improved services,” a JPMorgan Chase spokesperson who did not give her name says. “In contrast, checks and food stamps are labor-intensive, expensive to issue and replace, easily lost or stolen, and subject to forgery.”

And according to New Mexico Human Services Department Communications Director Matt Kennicott, JPMorgan offers the state a great product.

“[JPMorgan] was awarded the bid by offering competitive pricing and comprehensive services and support,” Kennicott writes in an email to SFR. “They have a vast amount of experience with this service and provide the same service to many other states.”

But critics maintain that the issue isn’t whether JPMorgan can help cut inefficiencies and costs, but rather that its primary interest is its own bottom line. This tension, they say, creates a cycle of government dependence driven by corporate interest.

“I don’t think that these types of government services should be contracted to any for-profit company,” Enrique Cardiel, a volunteer organizer with La Raza Unida Party, tells SFR. “Government is there to serve people. When you give that responsibility to a company whose purpose is to create a profit, you really pervert the whole sense of government being for the people.”

A deepening recession, coupled with a national unemployment rate hovering stubbornly around 9 percent, foreshadows increases in EBT contracts for JPMorgan Chase.

Indeed, the company anticipates a steady growth in food stamp recipients, JPMorgan Chase Managing Director of Treasury Services Christopher Paton told Bloomberg News last October.

That growth is tied to other factors, too. Nationally, approximately 40 percent of food stamp recipients are employed. In New Mexico, 37 percent are but incomes on both the national and state level have been falling since 2008, according to income reports from the Census Bureau. As a result, working families like Goméz-Rodriguez’ still can’t make ends meet.

“This will really impact Raza because it’s a continual exploitation of the poverty we live in,” Cardiel says. Roughly 50 percent of New Mexico food stamp recipients are Latinos.

“This contract is playing on people’s valid complaints and critiques of government to create anti-family and anti-working-class policies,” Cardiel continues. “It is destroying a whole way of life where people can get the support they need to live quality lives.”

Goméz-Rodriguez knows this, and it informs her ultimate goal: to be free of food stamp support once and for all. To that end, she’s currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in criminology and psychology at the University of New Mexico.

“I’m grateful to be on food stamps, but I can’t wait until the day I don’t have to rely on it,” she says. “One of these days, I hope to get off of it. I don’t want to rely on it forever.”

The Criminal Cost of Talking to a Loved One Behind Bars

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Photo Credit: Tracy A. Woodward, Washington Post

May 14, 2012
Colorlines.com

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When Martha Wright’s grandson was moved to a prison outside of her hometown of Washington, DC., she didn’t expect that a short 5-minute conversation with him could cost up to $18.

“You just have to get everything out in one line,” she laughs.

For Wright, phone calls and writing letters are the primary ways she can stay in touch with her grandson, Ulandis Forte, who has been in prison for nearly 20 years. Forte was 19-years old when he was charged with murder in a Washington, DC court. According to Wright, he was home from school on break when a birthday brawl took a turn for the worse and another boy wound up dead. “He did the time,” says Wright. “I told him he has to go forward and repent for that.”

Now 38-years old, Forte is set to be released on parole this August. In the two decades since he’s been imprisoned, Wright has been among the only constants in her grandson’s life. His mother died in 2006 and his father is paralyzed from a basketball accident. She’s 86-years old, retired, blind and has “all kinds of illness,” she says. When she was in better health, Wright would visit her grandson in prison. She traveled to see him after he was transferred from a DC-owned prison in Virginia to one in New Mexico, and then bounced around from Arizona to Ohio. He’s now housed at the Allenwood Correctional Facility in White Dear, Pennsylvania.

She’s too fragile to make the four hour trip to visit her grandson in person, so she’s only able to manage the trip twice a year. Between visits, they talk for about five minutes twice a week. But that contact comes at a steep price.

“It’s terribly expensive,” she says. “It’s awful.” In 2000, Wright, along with other families of prisoners, filed a class-action lawsuit against Corrections Corporation of America seeking federal action to get relief from what they considered exorbitant phone call charges. In 2007, after the case failed to end in a settlement, the petitioners filed another proposal that would put a limit on how much companies could charge prisoners and their families for phone calls, and eliminate costly connection fees. The Federal Communications Commission has yet to make a ruling on the proposal.

On Mother’s Day, a campaign launched by a trio of media justice and prison reform groups aims to force the FCC’s hand in the matter. The Center for Media Justice, along with Prison Legal News and Working Narratives, are leading an effort to get prison phone rates onto the FCC’s legislative to-do list. Last week, the groups encouraged supporters to submit stories about their hardships communicating with loved ones in prison to then be turned over to the Commission in hopes that it will finally move toward regulating the private companies that oversee prison phone calls.

For the activists who are involved, it’s an issue that falls clearly along racial lines. About 35 percent of prisoners are Latino and 37 percent are Black, according to March statistics from the Bureau of Prisoners. And many of them are poor. About 88 percent of people awaiting trial or serving time in jail had no income or made less than $1,200 a month, according to Bureau of Justice. While incarcerated, prisoners make only cents an hour. Because Forte doesn’t have a livable income, Wright sends him $275 to help him out with basic expenses.

“Communities of color are most directly impacted by the high cost of prison phone calls,” says Steven Renderos, national organizer with the Center for Media Justice. “What’s at stake is not just the price of a phone call, it’s the health and well being of our families and loved ones struggling to stay connected.”

Prisoners can usually call home in two ways: they can call collect or use a debit card issued by the prison. Debit cards are usually the cheaper options, but they’re not available in all states and still costly. In March, Wright’s grandson didn’t have enough money on his card for their usual phone calls, so they only spoke about three minutes one week, she says. That call cost $18, including taxes.

“He buys so many minutes and when his minutes run out, they cut off on you,” says Wright.

The “they” in this case is Global Tel*Link, a private Alabama-based phone company contracted with Pennsylvania to provide prison phone services. Last year the company acquired three of its competitors and now contracts with over half of state prisons to provide phone services. In 2008, the company gave Pennsylvania over $7 million in additional state revenue. Over $82,000 of that revenue was generated by roughly 21,000 interstate calls like Forte’s to his grandmother in Washington, DC. The practice is known widely as a “kickback”, a percentage of the phone call profits collected by the state. The companies inflate the phone rates to cover the cost of the commission and still make a profit.

For years, states have contracted with private companies to provide telephone services through a typical bidding process administered through the state’s Department of Corrections or, like in Pennsylvania, the Governor’s Administration Office. In some states the public utilities commission approve of the final phone rates and commission. But in others like Maine, the Department of Corrections has no oversight from the commission, or any other agency on how it sets up the rates. Nationwide, only seven states and the District of Columbia have stopped accepting kickbacks – California, New Mexico, South Carolina, Nebraska, Michigan, Rhode Island and Missouri.

Because most state prisons are located far away from any metropolitan area, many prisoners pay long distance fees to stay in touch with family members and friends.

“Quite honestly I don’t know anyone, middle class or not, who could afford the cost of these calls,” says Nick Szuberla, a media artist with Working Narratives, a national multi-media social justice organization. “It’s not even just because people are low-income. I don’t think anyone could afford these calls.”

Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections told Colorlines.com that the kickbacks are placed in their Inmate General Welfare Fund which is used to purchase items like weight lifting equipment, sports equipment, satellite radio, religious supplies and visiting room supplies. Before New York ended kickbacks in 2007, the Department of Corrections used the revenue to provide health services for prisoners living with HIV/AIDS. But health services are something that prisons are required to provide by law, and that fact was hammered home by activists in New York who led a successful campaign to end kickbacks and reduce prison phone rates back in 2007.

In order for inmates to successful re-integrate into society, it’s crucial for them to maintain ties to their families while incarcerated, say advocates. A 2005 report by the Anne E. Casey Foundation found that prisoners’ first and last resort for housing and support are their families. When prisoner’s maintain contact with family during their incarceration, they’re also less likely to return to prison, according to a report from the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center.

“A vast majority of those people are going to come back to the community,” said Deborah Golden, an attorney with the D.C. Prisoners’ Project at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee and counsel on the Wright case. “Every piece of research we have says that stronger family ties increase the odds that someone will have a successful reintegration.”

Now, the focus on the FCC to finally act. But that’s much easier said than done, according to some observers.

“Apparently, the biggest reason for the failure of the Commission to act in recent years is the lack of adequate interest and staffing,” said Lee Petro, a volunteer attorney on the Wright case, in an email to Colorlines. “With the resolution of the other long-pending matters, the recent additions of two new Commissioners, and new technologies developed by the service providers that has decreased their costs of service, prompt action now will give relief to struggling families in these tough economic times.”

Although the telecom industry is a strong influence in Washington, the campaign has already garnered the support of Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. In a recent speech at Catholic University, she asked the commission to review the languishing documents which “have significant implications for making phone service affordable for inmates and their families who are currently making unbelievable economic sacrifices in order to keep their families connected.”

For Wright and her grandson, that connection has proved pivotal for nearly two decades.

“He wants to be a counselor [when he gets out],” Wright says of her grandson. “He wants to go around and help people in jail.”