My guest today is author, attorney and progressive activist, Eric Lotke. Welcome back to OpEdNews, Eric.
JB: You've written two novels that have incarceration as a major theme and two of your most recent op-ed pieces are on the subject. Why are you fixated on our prisons?
EL: Heavens! I don't think I'm "fixated on prisons." But I do care a lot about justice. Unfortunately, in modern America, justice is wrapped up in (locked up in?) the prison system.
My new novel (Making Manna) takes a global view on prisons, humanity and the economy. My two recent op-eds each take on a specific issue about prisons.-- One is about private prisons and the other is about the exploitative pricing of phone calls from prison. But really they both go beyond prisons. Really they're about privatization and the abuse of public trust. Private prisons create a market for something that isn't actually needed;
prison phone companies engage in legalized extortion.
JB: How's that?
EL: The prison (or jail) phone companies charge people roughly a dollar per minute or $16 for a 15 minute phone call. Would you pay that much for a phone call? No. You'd change phone companies.
But families of people in prison are required to use the prison phone company, or not talk by phone at all. They're not allowed to mail pre-paid cards, use dial around services like 1-800-CALL-ATT, or change carriers. They must accept collect calls at the institutional rate or there's no phone. So the companies create an artificial monopoly and then take advantage of the captive market.
In a $16 (15 minute) phone call, the actual cost to provide the service might be roughly one dollar. The phone company keeps $5 as profit and pays the remaining $10 in commissions to the sheriff or whatever public agency grants the contract.
JB: Lovely for the phone company and the prison, less so for everyone else. Are you sure you're not exaggerating?
EL: FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn called it "the clearest, most egregious case of market failure I have seen."
JB: It's hard to disagree.
EL: It was a billion dollar racket. Phone companies and public authorities made out like bandits. Families had to choose between food, medicine or phone calls with people they love.
The good news is that the FCC just voted to curtail that practice. My recent oped is about that win. I credit it as an example of "the government taking the side of the people against an industry."
JB: Before we talk about the near-miracle of a favorable government decision, fill us in on how this truly egregious situation came about in the first place.
EL: It was a long haul. I was in it at the outset, part of a team of lawyers that challenged the monopolies in court. We brought multiple anti-trust lawsuits alleging restraint of trade, since the bill-payers are legally barred from choosing lower-cost options. We lost the anti-trust claims but the case was remanded to the FCC to consider the rates in its rulemaking