For two decades now, politicians and public scolds have sold America on the idea of a sterner penal system. Zero tolerance, three strikes and you're out, supermax prisons and legions of young men who have done time -- these are the hallmarks of our age.
What's hidden from view is that incarcerating people is big business in America. The corrections industry is powerful, and it often exemplifies the worst aspects of monopoly capitalism.
Just ask Ulandis Forte. He is a construction worker in the Washington, D.C., area, and he is in the forefront of a fight to right an injustice few of us are aware of: the exorbitant rates charged to families who accept phone calls from incarcerated loved ones. A 15-minute call from an inmate can cost nearly $20. That has nothing to do with any special technical or logistical difficulties of providing the service. It's purely a matter of what prison operators can get away with charging. Families either pay the high fees, which can total hundreds of dollars a month, or forego the chance to stay in touch.
Forte might just win his battle. In mid-November, the Federal Communications Commission initiated the process to consider setting price caps for prison phone service charges; the topic has been opened for public comments.
If you wonder why this issue matters to Forte, it's because in June he completed an 18-year murder sentence. While he was incarcerated, his lifeline was his maternal grandmother, Martha Wright. It was she who began the battle against the prisons' price gouging on phone calls.
Wright raised Forte. She was the only family member who never gave up on him. Wright, 86, is blind and uses a wheelchair. When Forte was in prison, she tried to visit him no matter where he was transferred, traveling across the country from her home in Washington, D.C. Yet she couldn't keep up as her only grandson was moved from state to state, and she could not afford the long distance phone bills. Sometimes, she'd hang up the phone when she heard the words "A collect call from ..."
That made her angry.
The woman known to her grandson as "Big Mama" became the lead plaintiff of a 2000 class action lawsuit against Corrections Corporation of America, a company that operates many of the nation's prisons, charging that it conspired with phone companies to create monopolies.
Prison phone rates vary from state to state, but most states take a kickback from phone companies for every phone call inmates make, raking in millions of dollars a year. Their take is typically between 50 and 60 percent. Only a handful of states and the District of Columbia don't take a cut of the calls.
In 2001, the federal judge hearing the class action suit ruled that the FCC had primary jurisdiction over phone rates, kicking the case into limbo.
When Forte was released, he decided to take up the cause his grandmother initiated on his behalf. He lives in a halfway house now and credits his grandmother with instilling his discipline. Without her support, he would have exited prison "more hardened, more cold," he says. She kept him grounded, reading the Bible.
"I don't want anything that has to do with negativity. It has no role in my life," the 38-year-old said.
Ending this kind of price gouging is not coddling inmates. It's consumer fairness. Corporations shouldn't profit from skyrocketing rates on a captive market -- one that includes 2.7 million children who have one or more parents in prison.
The problem hits minority and poor communities harder due to their higher rates of incarceration, the very people least likely to afford the predatory fees. Opponents argue that the profits cover higher costs of monitoring inmate calls and can offset the prison rehabilitation programs. But that is hardly the most enlightened social policy. Disconnect inmates from family and you undermine a key element of rehabilitation. You take away a powerful means of fighting recidivism. It means we all pay a higher price in the end to lock up the same people over and over.
Around the time Forte learned that his grandmother had taken up this fight (Big Mama didn't let on at first), he began to worry about her declining health, fearful that she would die before his release.
She didn't. Now he's the activist. He has met with a member of the FCC and is prominent in a growing coalition of faith leaders and social justice and prison reform advocates.
Forte wants to ensure other inmates have a shot at what he gained by his grandmother's insistent love: the chance to complete their sentences, to restart life productively and to reunite with family members who love them.
It's the best shot parolees have at a crime-free future.
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. E-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.