NOW Foundation Joins Allies to Promote Telecommunications Justice

February 29, 2012

NOW Foundation has joined with The Leadership Conference Education Fund and a broad coalition of social justice organizations to work on a project addressing abusive telecommunications practices. NOW Foundation has a long history of taking on the media industry for its effect on individual women's lives and the feminist movement in general.

For decades, NOW Foundation has focused on media content, ownership and employment. In 2012, the organization is broadening its media agenda through participation in this project, which concentrates on two important issues that have a disproportionate impact on women, people of color, immigrants and low-income communities: prison phone rates and mobile phone billing.

Prison Phone Rates Fleece Families

Many people are unaware that one of the most widespread injustices confronting incarcerated people and their families is excessive telephone rates. Thanks to a bidding system that rewards prisons with inflated commission payments (otherwise known as "kickbacks"), exorbitant charges are imposed upon prisoners who seek to stay in touch with loved ones, community resources and legal representation.

The ability to assist in their defense and connect with family are critical to prisoners' successful transition from incarceration back into the community. In addition, exorbitant phone charges undermine the economic security of family members who shoulder the costs of these collect calls -- disproportionately mothers, sisters, wives and girlfriends -- just at a time when they need to conserve their resources for their loved ones' legal expenses and costs of re-integration.

The differences between rates inside and outside of prison are often jaw-dropping. One hour of calls per week can result in a $300 monthly bill. The Center for Constitutional Rights reports that incarcerated individuals often simply give up communicating with loved ones, or their families make sacrifices -- from going without groceries to going bankrupt -- in order to stay in touch.

Changes enacted in New York state demonstrate that the system can be reformed with concerted advocacy and pressure. According to the Media Justice Fund, prior to reform the state was taking more than 57 percent of the profits from prison phone calls, thus pocketing more than $200 million from 1996 to 2007.

During the past two decades, criminal justice reformers have done the lion's share of advocacy on prison phone rates. This new project ensures that media reform, civil rights and feminist groups will add their weight to this important effort. A plan for action involves both state and national level education and lobbying. NOW Foundation aims to engage its grassroots activists with a forthcoming toolkit produced by coalition partners that will provide background information and suggested strategies to effect change.

Cell Phone Billing Ripe for Exploitation

In recent years, women, people of color, low-income persons 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.

Contracts and billing for mobile services can be confusing. "Bill Shock" is the term used for the experience mobile users have upon discovering they went over their voice, text or data limits or ran up "roaming" charges. Without fair warning from the mobile provider, these bills can present a real hardship to people with limited incomes.

Adding to the confusion is the outrageous practice known as "cramming" -- in which third-party vendors place unsolicited, unauthorized charges on both landline and wireless phone bills. These charges are undeniably fraudulent and are often labeled in a way calculated to deceive consumers. Getting these charges taken off their bills can be an overwhelming challenge.

Convincing the telecommunications giants that dominate the market to voluntarily institute better policies and more transparency to customers is no small task. Quite simply, without better regulation of the market by the Federal Communications Commission and Congress, people who rely on mobile phones as their only phone and their only connection to the Internet, are increasingly vulnerable. And, as we have seen with the rise of online activism, this also has implications for the women's rights movement as a whole.

Through this new project, NOW Foundation is helping raise awareness about these issues, which have often taken a backseat to more high-profile telecommunications issues. Foundation representatives are already taking part in coalition planning and strategy meetings. In coming months, the organization will engage potential supporters through blog posts and social media, send out action alerts, take part in visits to Capitol Hill and the Federal Communications Commission, and much more.

Make sure you are subscribed to NOW's action alert list if you want to stay updated on these important issues.