Today was an extremely emotional meeting at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). After ten years of fighting, the FCC resolved the Petition filed by Martha Wright and concluded that the rates charged for prisoners to make and receive phone calls are “unjust and unreasonable” and therefore violate Section 201 of the Communications Act. The FCC imposed interim rates and issued a further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to ensure that rates going forward are based on actual cost to provide service, not jacked up outrageously because prisoners and their families have no choice. Importantly, the FCC ruled that the “commissions” (aka kickbacks) paid to jails for the right to exploit the helpless and profit from the misery of their families are not a “cost” that can be recovered. (FCC press release here.)
As you can tell from the above, I feel rather strongly about this. I have written before that I regard this as a case where the words of Isaiah 1:17 and Zachariah 7:10 apply. I also find it of great significance that this is Shabbas Shoftim, the Sabbath on which we read the portion of the book of Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 (called “Shoftim,’ judges, because it begins with “Judges and officers shall you give yourselves in all your gates that the Lord shall give unto to dwell in, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgement.”) Specifically, Verse 16:20 enjoins the people “Justice, Justice shalt though pursue! ”
It has been a privilege to support the efforts and advocacy of so many of my friends. I dare not begin to list, because I would invariably leave someone out. The level of organization work in the field, meshing with advocacy efforts at the FCC and on the Hill, has been astounding. For years, this proceeding went in fits and starts, constantly delayed, because who cares about the incarcerated and their families? Out of sight, ignored, and generally regarded with suspicion. So their cause was neglected and ignored — until then-Commissioner Clyburn became a champion for it in the FCC and breathed new life into our efforts.
Today, Chairwoman Clyburn gave justice. Justice to the Wright Petitioners, and to every family trying desperately to maintain basic contact with incarcerated loved ones. The promise of the Rule of Law is that the benefit of law applies to ALL. The promise of Section 201 of the Communications Act for 75 years has been that everyone is entitled to just and reasonable rates, no matter who you are or where you are. Section 1 of the Act promises to secure the benefit of the Act to “all Americans.
Today the FCC affirmed that all Americans means ALL Americans. Even the most powerless, even those being punished for crimes, are still people protected by the rule of law. Their families are still people, entitled to depend upon the rule of law to protect them from the cruel choice of talking to their father, son, granddaughter or paying for basic necessities because a phone call that normally costs pennies costs the families of prisoners more than $15 for a few minutes.
Today, the FCC, under the leadership of Chairwoman Clyburn, stood up and did its job. it found exhorbitant prison phone rates unjust and unreasonable, mandated an interim cap, and issued a notice of further rulemaking to ensure that future rates are cost-based.
To quote from scripture one last time. “It is from the Lord, and it is wondrous in our eyes. Behold the Day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and make merry!” (Psalms 118)
Finally, this is a reminder of what can happen when people in power have the courage to do their job. Govornment and regulation CAN protect the helpless. People demanding justice CAN make a difference. A “government bureaucrat” like Chairwoman Clyburn CAN be a champion for justice for the oppressed and it DOES matter.
How much greater the shame, then, to those in government who refuse to act when needed? Or those who cynically refuse to believe anything we common folk do can make a difference?
To you handwringers, and you shruggers of shoulders, I tell you this: the problem is not with “the system.” The problem is YOU.
Stay tuned . . . .