Calling For Justice

Cell phones, computers, and digital technology are making
connections faster than ever, but not everyone is reaping the
benefits. While people with computers can make phone calls for free
using
voice
over internet protocol
(VoIP) technology, people stuck on the
wrong side of the digital divide are being forced to pay higher
premiums for making calls on basic landlines.

One group that’s being hit hardest is prisoners and their
families. Inmates in the United States are given little choice but
to pay high fees when trying to connect with the outside world.
According to
Claudio
Cabrera of Amsterdam News
, many prisons have set up a
single-service collect call provider as prisoners’ only phoning
option. This lack of competition is a financial boon for the phone
companies and the prisons, and a financial drain for families of
prisoners who are forced to pay markups of 630 percent.

The justification for this ‘backdoor tax’ is that it helps pay
for the nation’s under-funded prison system, including medical care
and visiting services. The
New York Campaign
for Telephone Justice
, an organization combating such
monopolistic policies, believes that the charges are doing more
harm than good. The organization suggests that one of the keys to
successful rehabilitation is keeping in touch with friends and
family, and exorbitant phone costs are preventing many inmates from
doing just that.

The specter of higher calling costs is reaching beyond prison
walls to other communities. As

Angela Carter of the Journal Register News Service

reports, a controversy has erupted over proposed fee hikes by
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Kevin Martin. Many
have suggested that the proposed payment plans would
disproportionately affect low-income and elderly phone users.

Citing the dwindling long-distance phone market, Martin proposed
a shift in contributions to the Universal Service Fund (USF) — the
program set up to provide affordable phone services to low-income
households. As it stands now, contributions to the USF are based on
usage; those who make more phone calls pay more money. Under
Martin’s plan, there would be a flat fee based on the number of
telephone lines in a household.
Keep USF
Fair
, a collation fighting the FCC plan, estimates that the fee
change would add up to $383 million to the bills of 16 million
households of mostly low-income and elderly individuals, while
high-usage customers like big businesses would catch a break with
lower costs.

Keep USF Fair already has sent over half a million emails and
letters to leaders in Washington, and the group’s been joined in
the fight by

Consumer Action
and the League of United Latin American
Citizens, which says the fees will hit Latinos who rely on pre-paid
cell phones disproportionately hard. As Linda Sherry, director of
national priorities for Consumer Action told the Journal
Register News Service
, the FCC is trying to balance the phone
budget ‘on the backs of the consumers who use long-distance the
least and are least able to afford phone bills.’

Go there >>
Punishing
Phone Call Tax for Families of Incarcerated

Go there too >>

Coalition Says Rising Phone Fees Would Hurt Hispanics,
Elderly

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