Award-winning Investigative Journalist Robert Parry (1949-2018)

Award-winning investigative journalist and founder/editor of, Robert Parry has passed away. His ground-breaking work uncovering Reagan-era dirty wars in Central America and many other illegal and immoral policies conducted by successive administrations and U.S. intelligence agencies, stands as an inspiration to all in journalists working in the public interest.

Robert had been a regular guest on our Between The Lines and Counterpoint radio shows -- and many other progressive outlets across the U.S. over four decades.

His penetrating analysis of U.S. foreign policy and international conflicts will be sorely missed, and not easily replaced. His son Nat Parry writes a tribute to his father: Robert Parry’s Legacy and the Future of Consortiumnews.

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Campaign Pressures FCC to Roll Back Exorbitant Expense of Prison Phone Calls

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Posted Sept. 26, 2012

Interview with Drew Kukorowski, research associate at the Prison Policy Initiative, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


For the 2.2 million inmates in the U.S. prison system, phone calls to and from their loved ones are an important source of support and a way to help inmates transition back to society upon release. But in most states, the cost of these phone calls can be prohibitive – up to a dollar a minute. That leaves most prisoners and their families with much less personal contact via phone calls than they would like. In some extreme cases, families have to choose between calling family members in prison and putting food on the table.

Now a campaign is under way to pressure the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, to make a ruling that interstate calls between prisoners and their families must be regulated to be priced at a reasonable rate. The ruling, if issued, would not affect calls between prisoners and their family members within the same state.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Drew Kukorowski, a research associate at the Prison Policy Initiative, a group that’s active on examining the societal impact of mass incarceration. He explains how the prison phone system works, why it's so expensive, and the goal of the organization’s current campaign targeting the FCC.

DREW KUKOROWSKI: The way the prison telephone system works is that state Depts. of Correction – those are the state prison systems – enter into exclusive contracts with the prison telephone companies. In the vast majority of the states, the prison telephone companies will pay a commission, which is a fancy name for a kickback, to the state Dept. of Correction. What this does is drive the rates up because the company has to then bring in enough revenue to send some back to the state Dept. of Correction. This practice has been banned in New York, and consequently, the rates have plummeted in NY for the state prison system there; it's about five cents a minute for inmates to call their families in NY, which is a very reasonable rate. Notably, the company that has the contract for the NY prison system is Global Tele-Link, which is the behemoth prison telephone company that has contracts in many of the other states that charges exorbitant rates.

BETWEEN THE LINES: It seems rather obvious, but what's the impact of these high phone rates on the inmates and their families?

DREW KUKOROWSKI: So one thing the high rates do, it reduces the frequency with which people in prison can speak with their families. For example, I track some of the letters that come in from people in prison to the FCC encouraging them to regulate the interstate long distance rates. And if you read some of these letters that people in prison are writing in, you can see they're saying things like, "I'd like to be able to talk to my brother or my parents, but I can only afford one 15-minute phone call a week with my wife, or my kid." And so what happens is that when the rates for a 15-minute phone call are $10 or $15, it just common-sensically reduces the frequency that people are able to talk to their family members.

BETWEEN THE LINES: And that's because, I guess, most people in prison tend to be from low-income families. If you're a millionaire, I guess it doesn't really matter.

DREW KUKOROWSKI: Right, exactly, if you're Bernie Madoff and you're in the federal BOP (Bureau of Prisons), it's not a problem. You're only limit is you can only talk on the phone so much when you're incarcerated; they won't let you talk unlimitedly. But for most people who come from low-income backgrounds, it can add up very quickly. And one of the things the prison phone companies argue – and the state prison systems do, too – is that with what they call debit-based, or pre-paid, systems, that the prisoners themselves pay for the phone calls rather than calling collect. But in most places people who are incarcerated earn 20 or 30 cents an hour, and the way their accounts get built up is by family members putting money into their commissary account or their canteen account, so in almost all cases, it's really the families of those incarcerated who end up footing the bill.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, Drew Kukorowski, what's the role of the FCC and what's your organization trying to get the FCC to do?

DREW KUKOROWSKI: The FCC as a federal agency only has jurisdiction to regulate out-of-state long-distance prices. They cannot regulate long-distance or local calls that are within a single state. This is a federal versus states' rights issue. But the FCC still has the power to regulate interstate long distance calls, and what they've been trying to do for about ten years now – there was a lawsuit initially that was dismissed from court and sent over to the FCC for the FCC to propose a rule-making to regulate the out of state, interstate, long distance prices for the prison system. There's a movement to really push the FCC to propose a rule-making, publish it in the Federal Register, and once they propose that rule-making, a year clock starts ticking for public comments, and hopefully, at the end of that year, the FCC will enact a regulation that would impose a price cap on the rates that the prison telephone companies are allowed to charge for out-of-state long distance.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Is this something the general public can have an impact on, and if so, what can they do?

DREW KUKOROWSKI: Yes, it is something that the general public can have an impact on, and they can put pressure on the FCC and let the FCC know that this is an issue that people care about, and think that is important not just for the people that are incarcerated and their families, but for the public at large, because the social science studies are conclusive in that when people who are incarcerated have close family ties and family contact during their period of incarceration, they're less likely to commit another offense when they're released from prison. Sort of a common sense point, but it gets backed up by the social science research too.

To learn more about the Prison Policy Initiative’s Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, visit

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