A New Court Ruling Harms Prisoners Nationwide -- Including My Cousin

My cousin Charlie is serving time in an upstate New York prison. I’ve always known my cousin to be a hard-working Latino but when times got hard he made some really poor choices and is now being held accountable.

His biggest regret is how this has affected our 89-year-old grandmother, who lives in Pennsylvania and raised him as her own son. And thanks to a recent court decision, it will be much harder for them to stay in touch.

On Tuesday, a federal appeals court struck down several provisions in the Federal Communications Commission’s recent decisions to cap the cost of prison- and jail-phone calls. This ruling is a real blow to my family and many others like mine across the country.

It’s also a huge step backward. In late 2015, the FCC voted to reduce the steep cost of prison-phone calls charged to incarcerated people and their families. Many inmates and their families had spent years fighting to cap these calls, which can run to more than a dollar per minute. When the FCC voted to implement the caps I felt a sense of relief knowing that Charlie would be able to afford to call my grandmother on a more regular basis without worrying that he’d deplete his commissary on just phone calls.

But soon after these rules were adopted the prison-phone industry sued the agency. In February 2017, Donald Trump’s newly appointed FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, said the agency’s lawyers wouldn’t defend key aspects of these rules in court — paving the way for Tuesday’s decision.

My grandmother has mobility challenges and can’t visit Charlie in prison. She also never learned to read or write; weekly phone calls are how they stay in touch. I mail my cousin money orders on her behalf to help cover the costs of these calls. My grandmother lives on a fixed income but sacrifices what she can to send money. This new ruling will hinder her ability to live comfortably. How will she choose between buying groceries, paying her utility bills and talking to her grandson?

This ruling is also going to harm my grandmother emotionally. She depends on those calls to know that Charlie’s OK and to get updates on when he will be released. This ruling leaves the prison industry and prison-phone companies largely unaccountable for their abusive and exorbitant prison-phone rates, which could very well mean that she will hear from Charlie less often, if at all. The new ruling will make the families of prisoners feel as if we too are serving time.

Free Press Deputy Director and Senior Counsel Jessica J. González said it best: “This is bad for families. And it’s especially unfair to the children of inmates, who deserve to have a relationship with their parents. This ruling will be particularly destructive to Black and Latinx people given that the racially biased practice of mass incarceration impacts those communities the most.”

I agree. In the aftermath of the court ruling, I have no doubt that the relationship between my grandmother and my cousin will suffer. As a Latina, this makes me very angry — and eager to fight back against the ongoing injustices that my Latinx community and our country continue to endure in the face of the Trump administration.

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people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good