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110 Organizations, Individuals Submit Joint Letter to FCC re high phone rates for immigrant detainees

Prison Legal News, Jan. 1, 2012.
Press release - 110 Organizations, Individuals Submit Joint Letter to FCC re high phone rates for immigrant detainees 2012

PRESS RELEASE

Human Rights Defense Center – For Immediate Release

November 8, 2012

110 Organizations, Academic and Legal Professionals Submit Joint Letter to FCC Urging Relief for Immigrants in Detention and their Families

Washington, DC – Today the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) submitted a joint letter to the Federal Communications Commission signed by 110 organizations and academic and legal professionals with an interest in immigrants’ rights. The letter urges the FCC to take action on the "Wright Petition," which has been pending since 2003. The Wright Petition asks the FCC to establish benchmark rates to cap the high cost of interstate phone calls made by people held in U.S. correctional facilities, including immigration detention centers.

High prison phone rates, which cost up to $22.75 for a 20-minute collect call, are driven by the monopolistic prison phone industry in which companies bid on contracts to provide phone services for individual detention facilities or entire prison or jail systems. Contracts are often awarded not to the lowest bidder but to the company that agrees to pay the highest kickback (politely termed "commission") to the contracting government agency. Such kickbacks range up to 60% of gross prison phone revenue, resulting in exorbitant phone rates. Three firms dominate the prison phone industry: Global Tel*Link, Securus and CenturyLink.

The joint letter to the FCC describes how the high phone rates that immigrants in detention are required to pay make it difficult for them to contact their families, legal counsel, consulates and human rights organizations. For many immigrants in detention, access to telephones is vital. The letter cites the example of an applicant for political asylum who fears torture or persecution in her home country and must present evidence to substantiate her claims. Adequate phone access is necessary to secure such evidence, such as witness statements and human rights reports, and failure to do so can mean deportation to a country where her life is in danger.

The letter to the FCC also highlights the impact of exorbitant interstate prison phone rates on immigrant families, citing a March 16, 2010 New York Times article that reports how the cost of phone calls increased 800 percent when immigrants were moved from a detention facility in New York to one in New Jersey. Due to such expensive phone rates, many immigrants in detention, most of whom are awaiting civil deportation or asylum hearings, are unable to maintain regular contact with their families and children.

"When people are detained as their immigration status is being determined by the courts, that should not give free license for detainees to be exploited by their jailers while they pursue their legal remedies," said HRDC Executive Director Paul Wright.

According to the joint letter to the FCC, in 2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released new Performance-Based National Detention Standards which state that "Detainees shall have reasonable and equitable access to reasonably priced telephone services." However, since the ICE standards are not enforceable statutes or legally binding, and contain no enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance, it is up to the FCC to regulate interstate prison phone rates to secure reasonably priced phone services for immigrants held in detention.

"Having reasonable, competitive phone rates for individuals in immigration detention merely enshrines basic human rights protections for immigrants seeking asylum, family unity and freedom – rights that are core to the United States' democratic principles," noted Professor Holly Cooper at the University of California Davis School of Law, who helped coordinate the joint letter to the FCC.

The 110 organizations and academic and legal professionals who signed the letter include the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, Detention Watch Network, Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center, National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, UC Davis Civil Rights Clinic, Amnesty International USA and Enlace (a project of Communities United for People).

HRDC, the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net) and Working Narratives are jointly coordinating the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, which advocates for lower prison phone rates. For more on the campaign, visit: www.phonejustice.org & www.prisonphonejustice.org.

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The Human Rights Defense Center, founded in 1990 and based in Brattleboro, Vermont, is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human rights in U.S. detention facilities. HRDC publishes Prison Legal News (PLN), a monthly magazine that includes reports, reviews and analysis of court rulings and news related to prisoners’ rights and criminal justice issues. PLN has almost 7,000 subscribers nationwide and operates a website (www.prisonlegalnews.org) that includes a comprehensive database of prison and jail-related articles, news reports, court rulings, verdicts, settlements and related documents.


For further information, please contact:

Prof. Holly S. Cooper
University of California, Davis
School of Law Clinical Programs
(530) 754-4833
hscooper@ucdavis.edu

Paul Wright, Executive Director
Human Rights Defense Center
(802) 257-1342
pwright@prisonlegalnews.org