FCC Looks Likely to Cap Phone Rates for Prisoners

Nine years since it was first petitioned to do so by families of people behind bars, the Federal Communications Commission appears closer to imposing a limit on the soaring rates some prisoners have to pay to make interstate telephone calls. It won’t say when it will take action, however.

The FCC’s consumer advisory committee submitted a list of recommendations last month urging the FCC to ensure that prices for phone calls from prison are kept to “reasonable” levels. And both the FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn have come out in support of limiting charges by private companies holding monopolies over prison telephone service in many states.

The push to cap prison phone rates started when Martha Wright, a grandmother who could not afford to call her grandson when he was incarcerated, filed a petition in 2003 asking the FCC to take regulatory action. Her 2000 lawsuit against a private prison company had gone nowhere, with the judge telling her it was up to the FCC to determine what reasonable interstate telephone rates should be.

The FCC has not taken any definitive action since the petition was filed, but the agency has been facing increasing pressure by advocates and receiving letters of support from inmates, their family members and advocates.

The letters often poignantly describe the impact of unaffordable phone calls on families.

“Dear Mr. [FCC Chairman Julius] Genachowski, My problem is this. I have life plus in prison and my family is all that I have,” wrote Delmont M. Player, an inmate in Cumberland, Md., to the FCC in August.

“There are so many days when I just need to hear a loved one’s voice to calm me down or carry me on. Then there’s the days when let’s say my wife needs to vent or my daughter’s having issues, etc. Yet I can’t even have a decent conversation because what little money I have goes so fast. Most times I end my phone calls more angry and frustrated than I was when I got on. It’s just like taking my freedom was not enough. Now they got to punish my family.”

The letter ended with a simple question. “When you have lost all forms of communication with the one thing that keeps you grounded, what else is there to lose?”

By keeping prisoners from staying in touch with their families, high telephone rates in prison deprive children from knowing an incarcerated parent, encourage recidivism and endanger communities, advocates say and the recommendations from the FCC’s own advisory committee echo.

More than half the people in state prison and 63 percent of those in federal prisons had children under 18, according to a report, The Price to Call Home: State-Sanctioned Monopolization in the Prison Phone Industry, released by the Prison Policy Initiative in September. “Lowering the cost of communications for these incarcerated persons and their children would improve parent-child relationships by permitting more frequent communication,” the report said.

That’s important because more frequent communication between prisoners and their families reduces the likelihood that released individuals will commit more crimes and return to prison, research has found, the report said.

“Foregoing revenue from exorbitant phone rates now will decrease correctional departments’ costs in the future because fewer people will find themselves back in prison,” the report argued.

The FCC consumer advisory committee made a similar point in its list of recommendations for the agency. “Phone calls are a critical part of the reentry process as maintaining strong family and community connections help inmates prepare for parole, coordinate their legal defense, find housing and secure employment,” it said.

The prison phone industry is dominated by three large companies, which strike exclusive contracts with states, set high phone rates and then provide a share of their revenue back to the state, according to the report The Price to Call Home.

Private phone companies that have struck a deal with a particular state can charge a prisoner $3.95 just to connect his collect call to a number outside that state, and then charge nearly 90 cents a minute after that, advocates said. As a result, a 15-minute phone call from a prison can cost as much as $15 to $17.

“It is cheaper to call Singapore at 12 cents a minute from a cell phone than it would be to speak to someone in prison in this country,” said a letter sent to the FCC in May that was signed by 30 organizations and individuals, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League and the National Organization for Women.

Lobbying by prison telephone companies has kept the FCC from capping phone rates for incarcerated people, charges the report The Price to Call Home. “Prison phone companies continue to resist a regulation that is eminently reasonable and that would permit them to make handsome profits while simultaneously reducing crime,” it said. “This is corporate greed and disregard for public welfare at its worst.”

“Prison phone rates serious issue for families, communities, security. FCC mtg w/ stakeholders, preparing next step,” tweeted FCC Chairman Genachowski during a question and answer session on Twitter last month.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn’s Sept. 24 statement also indicated action was coming.

“It is the Commission’s responsibility to ensure that interstate phone rates are just and reasonable, and we have an obligation to ensure that basic, affordable phone service is available to all Americans, including low-income consumers. Incarcerated individuals and their loved ones should not be the exceptions here, and as watchdogs of the public interest, this Commission must and should act expeditiously,” her statement read.

“I am pleased that the Chairman has been receptive to the Wright Petitioners, and my discussions with him and his office have been very positive about the next steps needed to move forward in this proceeding.”

The FCC did not return a message asking what the next step will be.