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Americans Don't Care About Prison Phone Exploitation, Says FCC Official

Federal regulators are trying to lower sky-high phone rates for inmates and their families, which advocate say reduces recidivism.

Most Americans don't care about the exorbitant phone charges that the nation's 2.2 million prison inmates and their families are forced to endure just to stay in touch, a top federal communications regulator said Thursday.

Inmates in federal and state prisons across the country are forced to pay outrageously high costs for simply making phone calls to their loved ones, which is why the Federal Communications Commission has been trying to ease their financial burden.

Criminal justice reform advocates have been working to convince the federal government to crack down on exploitative prison phone practices for years, but the issue still receives too little notice on the national stage, according to FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who issued a scathing call to conscience during the agency's monthly meeting on Thursday.

"In my 18 years as a regulator, this regime is the most glaring example of the greatest, most distressing, type of injustice I have ever seen in the communications sector," Clyburn said, her voice choking up with emotion. "After all this time, and all this attention, too few people really care."

"By voting against the caps, these guys voted against 2.7 million children who are just trying to stay in touch with their incarcerated parents."

Inmates in state and federal correctional facilities have long faced astronomical calling rates—in some cases a whopping $17 per minute or more—thanks to what inmate advocates call "usurious" practices by two companies, Securus Technologies and Global Tel*Link, that control the $1.2 billion prison phone market.

Criminal justice reform advocates say these enormous phone costs place a huge financial burden on families who are simply trying to stay in contact with their incarcerated family members. A recent study by a coalition of groups including the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found that one in three families go into debt because of the high cost of maintaining contact with incarcerated loved ones.

"No one should be told that their love is too expensive," Clyburn said.

Last October, the FCC approved caps on prison phone rates of 11 cents to 22 cents per minute on both interstate and in-state calls from prisons. That would have reduced average inmate calling costs from $2.96 to $1.65 for a 15-minute in-state call, and from $3.15 to $1.65 for a 15-minute long distance call, according to the agency.

At the time, the FCC's decision was hailed as a victory for criminal justice reform advocates who have long criticized what they call abusive and predatory practices by the small handful of phone companies that dominate the prison phone market.

Securus and Global Tel*Link promptly sued the FCC, objecting to the rate caps. Securus CEO Richard Smith went so far as to claim that lower costs for inmate phone communications would cause "jail unrest." That case is pending in the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.

On Thursday, the FCC voted to approve a revised set of prison phone rate caps at 13 cents to 31 cents per minute for both in-state and interstate debit and prepaid phone calls, depending on the size of the facility. The agency's modest upward rate revision is intended to assuage the prison phone call providers, as well as the DC Circuit, according to telecom policy experts.

The FCC's three Democratic commissioners, Tom Wheeler, Jessica Rosenworcel, and Mignon Clyburn, voted in favor of the new rate caps. The agency's two Republican commissioners, Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly, voted against them, citing procedural objections.

Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice, blasted Pai and O'Rielly for failing to act to ease the financial burden faced by inmates and their families, who are faced with sky-high calling rates.

"Pai and O'Rielly don't seem to care about the nation's poorest and most vulnerable people," Cyril told Motherboard. "Personal visits and telephone calls reduce recidivism. This is a well-known fact. By voting against the caps, these guys voted against 2.7 million children who are just trying to stay in touch with their incarcerated parents."

Matt Wood, policy director at DC-based public interest group Free Press, said that by voting against the FCC's proposed rate caps, Pai and O'Rielly are "abdicating their moral and statutory responsibility."

"The FCC has ample authority and every reason to ban unlawful, unjust and unreasonable prison phone rates," Wood added. "It's the FCC's job to not allow extortion, abuse and exploitation of what Commissioner Clyburn rightly calls a captive profit-generator for these few companies."

Representatives for Securus Technologies and Global Tel*Link did not immediately respond to requests for comment.