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This week, all eyes are on the Federal Communications Commission as it finally moves to issue an order to lower excessive prison telephone rates.   I am confident that the Commissioners will ensure that justice will prevail.

With the current rates, hearing prisoners’ telephone calls can cost their family members as much as $17 for just 15 minutes of time.  However, deaf, hard of hearing, deaf-blind, speech impaired, and hearing prisoners with deaf family members endure an even greater burden with respect to telephone rates and access due to a number of factors, including (1) telephone rates being applied evenly to TTY and regular voice phone calls, the former of which is much more time-consuming; (2) failure of prisons to install videophones and captioned telephones; (3) security measures that either prevent deaf prisoners from calling relay operators or cause them to incur additional fees by requiring relay services; and (4) security measures that require deaf prisoners to only place collect calls.  One deaf prisoner’s fiance paid $20.40 for a nine minute local TTY-to-voice phone call at a facility where hearing prisoners pay nothing at all for local calls.

In short, deaf and hard of hearing prisoners are not provided equal access to telecommunications at state and federal prisons across this nation solely based on their or a loved one’s disability.  In fact, family members of deaf priosners pay a whole lot more, for a whole lot less communication.

The Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act proscribe prisons from directly,  ‪or through contractual or licensing arrangements, denying people with disabilities the opportunity to participate in or benefit from the prison’s activities, programs or services.  These same laws require functional equivalancy in telecommunications and reasonable modifications to policies, practices, or procedures when necessary to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability.  In the case of a deaf or hard of hearing prisoner, equal access does not mean the same access as hearing prisoners.  Consequently, Inmate Calling Services must ensure that deaf prisoners can benefit from telephone services to the same extent as their hearing peers, and must not charge more for receipt of this comparable service. Sadly, this is not the case.

At many prisons, deaf prisoners have absolutely no telephone access to their loved ones.  Family members of deaf prisoners who do have access to telephones (via TTY), are forced to pay the same or, in many cases, higher rates to communicate on the antiquated and despairingly slow TTY, which can easily take more than five times as long as communication via traditional telephone.  At prisons where hearing prisoners receive courtesy local phone calls, deaf prisoners are charged to make local TTY calls; at facilities where hearing prisoners have access to discounted rates during evenings and weekends, deaf prisoners cannot access the TTY that often is located in a counselor’s office; and where hearing prisoners’ family members can send funds directly to their loved one’s telephone account at discounted rates, deaf prisoners are only able to make collect calls.  

The cost of these calls is often so outrageous, and communication via this medium so garbled, unreliable and unsuccessful, that deaf prisoners and their family members are forced to resort to degrading and dehumanizing alternatives: deaf prisoners begging, paying, or trading “favors” so that a hearing prisoner can call his wife, sister, or mother; relying on this hearing prisoner to facilitate communication the best that that hearing prisoner can.

I believe that this week, the FCC will do the right and just thing for hearing and deaf prisoners and their family members alike.

The Commissioners will say that private telephone companies are not allowed to punish family members and children of prisoners by charging rates and fees for phone calls that force families to choose between food and communication with their loved one behind bars.  They hopefully will also say that Inmate Calling Services must ensure that deaf prisoners can benefit from telephone services to the same extent as their hearing peers.  Specifically, they will decide that:

  • Deaf prisoners  and their family shall pay the same rate for the same amount of communication;
  • Deaf prisoners shall have equal (not the same) access to telecommunications as hearing prisoners;  
  • Deaf prisoners shall have the same options for placing calls and enjoy the same discounts as their hearing peers;
  • Voice command systems that do not allow deaf or speech impaired prisoners to utilize telephones shall be remedied; and
  • Relay numbers shall never again be blocked.  

Most importantly, the FCC hopefully will require the installation of videophones, captioned telephones, and other auxiliary aids “with all deliberate speed” to ensure equal and affordable telecommunication access for ALL prisoners.


About the Author:  Talila “TL” Lewis is the Founder of HEARD.  TL has worked extensively in the areas of deaf wrongful conviction and systemic abuse of and discrimination against deaf arrestees, defendants and prisoners.   

For more Information on HEARD’s Deaf Prisoner Phone Justice Campaign: