FCC Commissioner Clyburn Talks About #RightToConnect, Leaves Few Dry Eyes

MEDIA CONTACT: Chinyere Tutashinda, 510-698-3800x409

Over 100 attended a Hill briefing with Congressman Keith Ellison and others on proposed FCC reforms to cap prison phone rates and modernize the Lifeline Program.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – At a standing room only lunch briefing hosted by the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net) yesterday, Rep. Keith Ellison and Federal Communications Commissioner (FCC) Mignon Clyburn joined civil rights leaders to discuss how modernizing the Lifeline program to include broadband and capping prison phone rates will help ensure all Americans have the #RightToConnect, and with that, the ability to improve their lives.

"All too often, those inside the beltway get caught up in numbers and graphs instead of focusing on the faces and lives of real people who depend on us for relief. This is one reason why loved ones and attorneys seeking to maintain a connection to family members, friends and clients who are in jails and prisons have remained crushed by the weight of an unjust and unreasonable telephone rates. Today, I am pleased to welcome to Washington some tireless champions for phone justice who are giving voice to the incarcerated and their families whose cries for relief have been ignored for more than a decade." said Commissioner Clyburn during her remarks at the briefing.

On Oct. 22, the FCC will vote on recently proposed rules that would cap prison phone rates and eliminate expensive fees that prevent many families from connecting with their incarcerated loved ones. In some places, families are charged as much as $17 for a 15-minute conversation. According to a report released last week by Ella Baker Center, 1 in 3 families go into debt because of the high cost of maintaining contact with incarcerated family members. 

“I am here with MAG-Net because together we have been able to take the fight for affordable prison phone calls to the federal level,” said Carol Ammons, Illinois State Representative and participant in the #RightToConnect delegation. Ammons was brought to tears as she thanked Commissioner Clyburn for her leadership on a seemingly untouchable issue.

Following the briefing, delegates met with four of the five FCC Commissioners to deliver 80,000 petitions calling for affordable prison phone rates -- nineteen were letters from those incarcerated at Lino Lakes Correctional Facility. Commissioner Ajit Pai’s office cancelled at the last minute. The last minute decision by Pai’s office not to meet with civil rights leaders on the issue of prison phone rates and the modernization of the Lifeline low-income program stunned those who had traveled hundreds of miles to meet with his office.

Jazlin Mendoza, a youth leader with Generation Justice and panelist with an incarcerated father, traveled from New Mexico to bring a message to members of congress and the FCC about how high prison phone rates impact her family’s life. “My father and I only get to talk briefly because the rest of my family also want to talk to him, so all I have time to say is 'Daddy, I Iove you and miss you.' Affordable phone rates would make a great impact not just for me but for others who experience the same thing.”

The FCC has also proposed modernizing the Lifeline program, which would help low-income families afford an Internet connection at home. Research shows that broadband adoption in the home improves household income, leads to more employment opportunities and increases independence.

“My daughter has graduated from college and now she has to do the same thing as my husband to find work. Without a reliable affordable phone service, and a broadband connection to communicate with the rest of the world I don't know how long it  would taken my husband to find employment, how much more we would've gone in debt or even if we would've had a home anymore,” said Gina Juarez, a Lifeline subscriber.

Civil rights groups and other experts rounded out the briefing urging the FCC and other policymakers to ensure all Americans have the #RightToConnect, starting with making sure families—no matter who they are or where they live— have access to broadband and aren’t burdened by predatory prison phone rates.

Panel participants shared the following:  

  • “We need to fight for people's access to democracy, including those who are locked up. Being locked up is isolating. Being poor is isolating. We need to bridge the digital divide for all.”  Keith Ellison, U.S. Representative for Minnesota

  • “I think it is important to share real people stories with decision makers about why broadband access is important.  My daughter, my brother-in law and my sister cannot afford a computer or pay for the Internet so they are falling behind. Low cost or free broadband access would help their economic and educational development and give my family the opportunity to compete and get ahead.” Rudy Gallardo, Lifeline subscriber and advocate working with The Utility Reform Network in California

  • “Access to phone calls in prisons and jails reduces recidivism, links families to their community, and keeps people connected to their loved ones.” Gregg Gaither, former corrections officer turned social worker advocating with the Illinois Campaign for Prison Phone Justice.

  • "This delegation reflects the voices who are not often heard from in Congress or at the Federal Communications Commission. Included in this delegation are teachers, students, a former corrections officer, mothers, and advocates who all believe that the right to connect - whether it's a phone call to an incarcerated loved one or to the Internet - belongs to everyone." Steven Renderos, Center for Media Justice, Senior Campaign Manager.

See photos from the lunch briefing.