Hundreds of family members and protesters gathered outside the facility, among them Yandy Smith, Tamika D. Mallory, Latoya Bond and Jamila T. Davis. At one point guards pepper-sprayed Smith, the popular star of television’s Love and Hip-Hop.
Only after this melee was power restored on Sunday — after more than a week of conditions Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D–New York) described as “unacceptable”.
The U.S. mass-incarceration system is a web of cruel, unusual punishments like these. From Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow to Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th and rapper Jay-Z’s documentary The Kalief Browder Story, popular culture in recent years has swelled with analysis of the over-policing and exploitation of Black and Brown bodies.
This weekend’s display highlighted a critical thread of this sprawling issue: the ways that the lawless prison system routinely deprives incarcerated people of basic human dignity.
Edible food. Hot water. Adequate toilet facilities and sanitary products. The list of basic necessities many incarcerated people go without is lengthy and alarming.
And the Voices for Internet Freedom coalition has worked for years to highlight a lesser-known yet equally essential human right: the ability to communicate, specifically in the form of affordable phone services.
Prisons selling human dignity to the highest bidder
As of 2018, the average cost of a prison-phone call for the 2.2 million people incarcerated in this country was $1.66 per minute — meaning a 15-minute phone call could cost upwards of $25.
These costs fall on the families and loved ones of those in prison, and nearly half of those families are low-income. Many are forced to choose between basic necessities like groceries, utilities and medication, and making a phone call that could be a lifeline for everyone involved.
As of 2010, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that more than 1.7 million children in the United States had a parent behind bars. A 2015 report by ChildTrends.org found a higher incidence of emotional problems and troubles in school among children with an incarcerated parent.
Advocates have noted that maintaining strong relationships with family members improves the safety and mental health of incarcerated people. Keeping strong ties can also reduce the likelihood of recidivism.
Law-enforcement agencies often cite phone-call revenues as necessary to underwrite positive programs like prison libraries and recreation. The truth is that just three companies dominate the prison-phone services industry: Securus Technologies, Global Tel-Link and CenturyLink. These companies pay kickbacks to the correctional agencies they contract with — and an unfair, exploitative cycle rolls on, with poor families paying the price.
Last year, Mississippi’s attorney general filed 11 civil suits alleging bribery of state officials in the selection of telephone contracts. One of the largest providers settled a lawsuit for $2.5 million.
In the face of a system wracked with malfunction and impropriety, phone communications are also a key component of oversight. In the case of the Metropolitan Detention Center, occupants were able to get the word out about freezing conditions via family members, who then raised awareness with activists and the media.
Without contact with the outside world, who knows if the people inside MDC would have been able to publicize — and survive — this ordeal.
How Trump’s FCC is complicit
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai — formerly a private-sector lawyer who counted Securus among his clients — could have upheld a cap on phone-calling rates that the agency voted into effect prior to his chairmanship. Instead, Pai dropped the agency’s defense of the rules in court, giving the big three prison-phone companies the keys once again to seek runaway profits in an industry already estimated at $1.2 billion per year.
When the news of the power outage at MDC was made public, the Federal Bureau of Prisons responded by suspending family visits. And when families gathered outside to protest, 20 armed guards pushed through the crowd and were captured on video assaulting demonstrators and smashing at least one protester’s cellphone.
The guards were there to silence the crowds — the same way that incarcerated people will be silenced if the Trump FCC continues to let these prison-phone companies loot the pockets of poor families.
It’s time for Congress to step in
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D–Illinois) has proposed an intervention: the Video Visitation and Inmate Calling in Prisons Act of 2017. Among those calling on Congress to reintroduce and pass the measure is Voices for Internet Freedom, a coalition led by the public-interest groups 18 Million Rising, the Center for Media Justice, Color Of Change, Free Press and the National Hispanic Media Coalition.
Co-sponsored by Sens. Duckworth, Cory Booker, Rob Portman and Brian Schatz, this legislation would eliminate predatory inmate-calling rates nationwide by restoring the FCC’s authority to protect all consumers.
It’s worth noting that many of the people currently incarcerated at MDC are pre-trial, a point at which they are constitutionally presumed innocent — as was Kalief Browder, the teenager who spent three years imprisoned at Rikers Island awaiting trial on a charge of bookbag theft, unable to afford bond. Browder later committed suicide after struggling with the lasting effects of his brutal incarceration.
From the sexual abuse of undocumented immigrant children to the questionable deaths of people in custody like Sandra Bland, people of color have had to endure a merciless hall of horrors in the U.S. criminal-justice system. Now is the time for legislators to dismantle this horrific system, a system that has nothing to do with public safety and everything to do with profiteering and upholding White supremacy.
Exorbitant phone-call costs are just one of the many indignities endured by incarcerated people and their families on a daily basis. The Voices for Internet Freedom coalition continues to fight to bring awareness to this issue alongside a host of leaders, organizations and local grassroots activists in communities across the country.
Right now, the Voices groups are calling on activists across the country to urge lawmakers to reintroduce and pass the Duckworth bill. That means calling their offices, scheduling meetings and spreading the word among grassroots activists and groups.
Your voice will make a difference.
When the Federal Bureau of Prisons seemed content to let the people incarcerated at MDC languish for another week in subzero temperatures, the community protested loudly in opposition. Lawmakers couldn’t help but join in, and the agency was forced to restore power at the facility.
Now it’s time to turn the heat up at Congress and the FCC by urging lawmakers to support the Duckworth Bill and restore #prisonphonejustice. Spread the word and demand that lawmakers protect the most vulnerable in society from runaway corporate greed.