Amid Larger Reform Discussions, FCC Ends Overcharging for Prison Calls

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One Call / Andrew Bardwell

October 22, 2015; ABC News

Yesterday, the FCC voted to limit the rates pay phone companies can charge for local, in-state long distance, interstate, and international calls made from prisons and jails, thus making it easier for families to stay in contact with an incarcerated family member. In the future, most calls will cost approximately $1.65 for 15 minutes, in contrast to current rates that can run as high as $14 per minute, a terrible burden on families, many of which are low-income. The rules will be effective in prisons by early next year and a few months later in jails.

“For the ma­jor­ity of those faced with these bills, high pay­ments are their real­ity and in­cred­ible sac­ri­fices un­ima­gin­able to most of us are be­ing made,” said Mignon Cly­burn, a Demo­crat­ic FCC com­mis­sion­er. “This is un­ten­able, egregious, and un­con­scion­able.”

While the recent push for an end to mass incarceration has been bipartisan, and one would assume that releasing a lot of people who have lost their connection to families through the profiteering of phone companies is unwise, this vote was split along party lines, with Re­pub­lic­an Com­mis­sion­er Ajit Pai, according to Government Executive, spending some time on a rant about cell phones in prisons. “While be­hind bars, in­mates are run­ning drug op­er­a­tions. They are man­aging gang activ­it­ies. They are or­der­ing hits. They are run­ning phone scams,” he said. “The time has come to end this crime wave.”

The executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association also declared that group’s disappointment. “We believe also that inmates should have this capability to call, but unfortunately these new rates in all likelihood will mean that inmates will go without the ability to call and talk to their family members,” he said. “How many, we don’t know.”

The Christian Science Monitor reports that companies serving the lucrative Texas imprisonment “market” kick back anywhere from 30 to 90 percent of profits to county sheriffs and state corrections in return for exclusive contracts. Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell characterized these agreements as “worse than any payday loan scheme,” saying that they often benefit local sheriffs but that the politics of trying to end the practice is “hot.”

Brian Oliver, the chief executive of one of the companies, Global Tel*Link, told NPR that the practice was expected and that a cap could halve his revenues.

A number of nonprofit groups have been advocating for this change for some time. Last week, 26 human and civil rights groups issued a joint letter to the FCC asking for an end to predatory phone rates.

Unreasonably high prison phone rates are problematic for a variety of reasons. They:

  • Vastly exceed rates paid by non-incarcerated people. For example, a 15-minute call can cost up to $6 in Virginia and Louisiana. Many states charge a per-call fee and an additional 24 cents per minute, even for debit calling when payments are provided upfront, meaning no collection costs are incurred.1 Fees and ancillary charges include egregious examples such as charging $8 for each $150 deposited into a prepaid calling account.
  • Exploit a market failure depriving consumers the benefit of competition. While competition would be everyone’s first choice for constraining telephone prices, individuals paying for prison phone calls are literally a captive market unable to shop around for lower prices. Instead, correctional institutions select telephone providers. These institutions demand a “commission” or payment from the telephone company chosen, the cost of which is passed on to family members footing the bill. In this case, competition drives prices further and further upward.
  • Unjustly punish the families of people who are incarcerated. Incarcerated people rarely pay for their own telephone calls. Typically friends and family members submit funds into an account, or accept collect calls, in order to communicate. Thus, these friends, family, clergy, attorneys and others bear the annual $1.2 billion in telephone costs. As Right on Crime explains, the correctional system should help “preserve families.”
  • Contribute to rising costs of incarceration by increasing recidivism. Maintaining the bonds of a family and support network is an effective way to reduce recidivism among incarcerated people, which in turn reduces the cost of the criminal justice system. According to a 2011 Pew report, corrections in the states cost about $52 billion a year nationally and 43 percent of prisoners nationally return to the lockup within three years. Reducing those numbers could save hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Sound public policy dictates that we should not disincentivize the very behavior that will help us keep families together and, in turn, reduce future crime.
  • Are unnecessary. A number of state departments of corrections (DOCs) have demonstrated they can provide communications services at reasonable rates. States such as South Carolina, New Mexico, New York and Pennsylvania DOCs charge in-state rates between 4 and 6 cents per minute for a 15-minute call.”

Nonprofits working in communities from which prisoners come and to which they will return should celebrate the moment as having the potential to make re-entry easier for all involved.—Ruth McCambridge