FCC Takes Active Steps to Lower Inmate Calling Rates

by Kenneth Mallory on August 26, 2013

Prison BarsThe FCC has heeded the advice of a host of organizations that advocated for the lowering of interstate inmate call rates.

Groups such as the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice and the Prison Phone Rates Collaborative, and civil rights leaders like the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., have decried the exorbitant costs of inmate calls and urged the FCC to take action on this issue.

At a communications policy lecture last year, Jackson stated,  “Prison phone service is a civil rights issue. It is a moral issue. It is about how we respond to the  least of these. Visits to incarcerated family members are difficult for the poor. Transportation, accommodations—visits are an economic burden. The phone becomes the only way to maintain communication. Mothers and fathers with their children. Wives and husbands. Brothers and sisters. Instead of recognizing the important role telephone service plays in shaping the lives of inmates, the role it plays in maintaining the few supportive relationships many inmates have, prison administrators and state legislators view it as a revenue source. And the folks paying are those who can least afford it.”

In a recent order, the Commission announced that it would implement a rate cap for interstate inmate calling at the nation’s correctional facilities that would “dramatically” reduce the per minute rate for debit and pre-paid collect calling that inmates and their families pay to communicate.

In a statement, Interim FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn said that “for ten years, family, friends and legal representatives of inmates have been urging the courts and waiting for the FCC to ease the burden of an exorbitant inmate calling rate structure. Their wait is at long last over. Borrowing from a 1964 anthem inspired by challenges of his time, the immortal songwriter Sam Cooke sang that it’s been a long, long time in coming, but change has finally come.”

In March, the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council submitted comments to the Commission in its rulemaking proceeding on interstate inmate call rates, maintaining that interstate inmate rates were not just and reasonable and required Commission regulation.  MMTC urged the Commission to establish interstate benchmark rates, taking issue with numerous excessive fees and commissions that states charged for interstate inmate calls because of the crushing impact that these call rates had on marginalized and low-income Americans.

“As a coalition of civil rights organizations and activists has informed the Commission, the costs for inmate calls can ‘result in charges of $10-17 for a 15-minute collect call or $250 per month for a weekly one-hour call,’” wrote MMTC in the comments.  “In one egregious case, an inmate reported paying $1,000 for prison payphone calls in one month to communicate with his family.” MMTC also highlighted how high rates could discourage communication with inmates and their families and lead to inmates re-offending, citing data demonstrating that “contact with family ‘aids an inmate’s success when returning to the community’ and thus lowers recidivism.”

Earlier this year at its annual Broadband and Social Justice Summit, MMTC honored Martha Wright-Reed, who filed a petition ten years ago urging the Commission to lower inmate calling rates after she struggled financially to communicate with her incarcerated grandson.  At the Summit, MMTC also honored the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice and the Prison Phone Rates Collaborative, groups which constitute several advocacy organizations, for their tireless work to compel the FCC to action on the prison payphones issue.

According to the Commission, some of the actions the order takes include:

  • “Requires that all interstate inmate calling rates, including ancillary charges, be based on the cost of providing the inmate calling service
  • “Provides immediate relief to exorbitant rates:
    • Adopts an interim rate cap of $0.21 per minute for debit and pre-paid calls and $0.25 per minute for collect calls, dramatically decreasing rates of over $17 for a 15-minute call to no more than $3.75 or $3.15 a call
      Presumes that rates of $0.12 per minute for debit and prepaid calls ($1.80 for a 15-minute call) and $0.14 cents per minute for collect calls ($2.10 for a 15-minute call) are just, reasonable and cost-based (safe-harbor rates)
    • These rates include the costs of modern security features such as advanced mechanisms  that block calls to victims, witnesses, prosecutors and other prohibited parties; biometric caller verification; real-time recording systems; and monitoring to prevent evasion of restrictions on call-forwarding or three-way calling
  • “Concludes that ‘site commissions’ payments from providers to correctional facilities may not be included in any interstate rate or charge
  • “Clarifies that inmates or their loved ones who use Telecommunications Relay Services because of hearing and speech disabilities may not be charged higher rates
  • “Requires a mandatory data collection, annual certification requirement, and enforcement provisions to ensure compliance.”

Thanks to the FCC’s more stringent regulation of interstate inmate calling, families like Wright-Reed’s should expect significant relief.

  • Kenneth Mallory is an award-winning journalist and attorney who has freelanced for several publications, in addition to serving as a general assignment reporter for the Washington Afro-American Newspaper. He earned his B.A. magna cum laude from University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in addition to his J.D. from Northwestern University School of Law.

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