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The FCC Is Voting to Cap Ridiculous Phone Rates in Prison

The agency is targeting abusive phone company practices.

Sam Gustin

Sam Gustin

Photo: Tim Pearce/Flickr

Federal regulators are set to dramatically reduce the cost of prison phone calls, in an effort to crack down on what inmate advocates call abusive and predatory practices by phone companies.

For many years, inmates in both state and federal facilities have faced substantially higher rates for phone calls than people outside of prison—in some cases a whopping $14 per minute. Inmate advocates say this practice imposes an unjust burden on inmates and their families while lining the pockets of the companies that control the $1.2 billion prison phone industry.

The Federal Communications Commission has been trying to address this problem for years, led by FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who has championed prison phone reform. On October 22, the agency will vote on whether to impose tough new rate caps to ensure that the cost of inmate phone calls is "just, reasonable, and fair," the agency said Wednesday.

"Easing the financial burden on these families is not only the compassionate thing to do, it's the smart thing to do," Clyburn wrote in a FCC blog post in which she cited the case of one inmate who faced a $56 bill for a four-minute conversation with a pro-bono attorney. "Multiple studies have shown that having meaningful contact beyond the prison walls can make a real difference in maintaining community ties, promoting rehabilitation, and reducing recidivism."

Tens of thousands of people have urged the FCC to make it easier to maintain phone contact with imprisoned family members

The FCC's proposed rate caps would limit the cost of prison phone calls to 11 cents a minute for debit or prepaid calls—which account for most inmate calls—in state and federal prisons. The cost of calls made from local jails would be capped at between 14 and 22 cents a minute, depending on the size of the facility.

"This action will protect some of society's most vulnerable people from being taken advantage of, while strengthening families," Clyburn wrote.

The new FCC rate caps would reduce the average rates for the majority of inmate calls from $2.96 to no more than $1.65 for a 15-minute in-state call, and from $3.15 to no more than $1.65 for a 15-minute long distance call, according to the agency. The new policy would also crack down on excessive service fees and so-called "flat-rate calling," in which inmates are charged a flat rate for a call up to 15 minutes regardless of the actual call duration.

"This is really good news," said Cheryl A. Leanza, a policy adviser at the United Church of Christ and longtime advocate for prison phone reform. "The new rate caps are a really significant improvement, and the caps on fees are just tremendous."

In her blog post, Clyburn cited the late Martha Wright, a Washington, DC grandmother and retired nurse, who in 2003 petitioned the FCC for relief from exorbitant inmate calling rates. Wright, who is often credited with sparking the prison phone reform movement, faced hundreds of dollars in monthly phone charges just to stay in contact with her imprisoned grandson.

Since then, tens of thousands of people have urged the FCC to make it easier to maintain phone contact with imprisoned family members, according to the agency. In 2013, the FCC approved new limits on the cost of long distance calls for inmates. The latest proposal would further decrease those costs and expand the caps to in-state calls.

Leanza said that the FCC's progress in reducing the cost of prison calls is due to a multi-year effort by Clyburn, working in conjunction with FCC chairman Tom Wheeler.

The $1.2 billion prison phone industry is dominated by two companies, Securus Technologies and GTL, which have exclusive contracts to provide phone service for inmates at most of the federal and state prisons around the country. Representatives for Securus and GTL were not immediately available for comment.

The FCC will vote on the new prison phone rate caps at its October 22 open meeting. If the rate caps are approved—which is highly likely given that the FCC's three-member Democratic majority supports the new policy—they will go into effect in early 2016.