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National NOW Times >> Fall 2012  >> Article

Prison Phone Rates, Mobile Billing Practices Discriminate

NOW Foundation is working in coalition with The Leadership Conference Education Fund, the NAACP, Free Press and other allies in the civil rights and media reform communities to stop telecommunications practices that disproportionately affect women, people of color, immigrants and low-income families. The project concentrates on two important issues that aren't often talked about: prison phone rates and mobile phone billing.

Prison Phone Rates Fleece Families
Did you know that 75 percent of incarcerated women have a child under 18 years of age? Or that women, on average, are imprisoned 160 miles away from home? Women, low-income people and people of color are all unduly burdened by steep prison phone rates.

Thanks to a bidding system that rewards prisons with inflated commission payments (or "kickbacks"), prisoners are charged exorbitant rates in most states. For example: In New York, one of the few states that has banned kickbacks, an in-state call lasting 15 minutes costs 72 cents, while in Texas that same call costs nearly $11.

Excessive phone charges undermine the economic security of family members who shoulder the costs of these calls -- often mothers, sisters, wives and girlfriends. Trying to make ends meet and preserve family bonds while a member is in prison is hard enough, and exorbitant prison phone rates add to the hardship.

Cell Phone Billing Ripe for Exploitation
Have you ever received a cell phone bill that was higher than usual? Was this the first notice that you had exceeded the limits of your plan or racked up roaming charges? Or maybe your bill contained charges that looked a little fishy.

Two common ways people end up with excessive cell phone bills are known as "bill shock" and "cramming." Bill shock is a result of providers doing a poor job informing consumers when they are about to exceed their regular charges. Cramming is a flat-out scam involving third parties attaching charges to your phone that you never signed up for.

In recent years, women, people of color, low-income families and immigrants have come to represent a major segment of the cell phone market. For many, mobile devices have become their primary link to the Internet, as they cannot afford to have a personal computer and web connection in the home. Additionally, cell phones have quickly become an indispensable way for family members to communicate, for people to conduct work-related business and to promote personal safety.

The phone companies are dragging their feet to fix these problems, but progress is being made, thanks in part to the work of this coalition.

NOW Foundation leaders and staff are taking part in coalition efforts on both these issues, through education and outreach, lobbying on Capitol Hill and meetings with the Federal Communications Commission.

Resources

Center for Media Justice: Campaign for Prison Phone Justice FAQs (PDF)

Leadership Conference: Bill Shock: Facts You Should Know (PDF)

FCC: Helping Consumers Avoid Bill Shock - includes information about usage alerts from cell phone providers

Read more about the work of the NOW Foundation

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