Collect calls can cost as much as 89 cents per minute
Mignon Clyburn, a veteran policy maker from the Public Service Commission of South Carolina has been appointed acting chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) the first woman to ever hold the post.
Since joining the FCC in 2009, Clyburn has remained a leader in the fight to reduce telephone rates for prison inmates throughout the country and, in her first interview since being appointed by President Barack Obama to her new post, she vows to continue that battle.
"Tens of thousands of consumers have written, emailed and telephoned the FCC, pleading for relief on interstate long distance rates from correctional facilities and I intend to keep pushing this issue," Clyburn, age 51, said.
The second-term FCC commissioner is miffed that rates make it cheaper to place a cellular telephone call from as far away as Singapore than it is for an inmate to make an interstate collect call from prison in the United States.
According to data from various telephone companies, including Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint, the average cost of a call to Singapore is 12 cents per minute, while a call from prison includes a $3.95 connection fee regardless of the length of the conversation.
"One five-minute call from prison could be as high as $17 with the connection fee and the per-minute rates which can be as high as 89 cents per minute," Clyburn said. "That framework can be as high as your regular monthly phone bill. We're talking a significant amount of money for those who are least likely to be able to afford that type of engagement. All of this has motivated me to keep this fight going."
Clyburn, who holds a Bachelor of Science degree in banking, finance and economics from the University of South Carolina, served as chair of South Carolina’s commission from 2002 to 2004.
She said she is proud of where her professional career began, working with her father who owned an African American newspaper.
"It was on an African American newspaper, the Coastal Times, in South Carolina," she said. Clyburn co-owned and operated the newspaper with her father, Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the former House majority whip.
"I still lean on him, a lot," Clyburn said. "When I was being appointed [last week] by President Obama, we traded at least five telephone calls," she said.
Come what may, Clyburn says that she will continue to pressure regulators to find more affordable solutions and rates for inmates and the families.
Two private companies own the service that operate prison phone calls, Global Tel*Link Corp. of Mobile, Alabama and Securus Technologies, Inc. of Dallas, Texas.
A spokeswoman at Global Tel*Link and a secretary at Securus each declined comment. The companies have said that the higher rates are due to the security features such as monitoring phone calls and blocking numbers. “However, technology is readily available and not something that should translate to $15 for a 15-minute phone call," said Steven Renderos, national organizer for the Center for Media Justice in Oakland, California.
Clyburn, who in 2001 began work to reduce the rates and recruited Jesse Jackson's Operation Push to assist, said the telephone is a crucial instrument for the incarcerated, and those who care about them, because voice calling is often the only communications option available.
"Maintaining contact with family and friends during incarceration not only helps the inmate, but it is beneficial to our society as whole because there are well over 2 million children with at least one parent behind bars and regardless of their circumstances, both children and parents gain from regular contact with one another," said Clyburn.
"I'm optimistic on a number of fronts. We all know or are related to someone who has been or is currently incarcerated and a lot of people still don't realize how significant of an economic impact this has on poor families.