Families Urge the FCC to Lower Price of Prison Phone Calls

Advocates say regulation would both reduce the price-gouging that incarcerated persons' families suffer and simultaneously contribute to the social good by reducing recidivism.

By Jorge Rivas Sep 27, 2012

Earlier this week, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn heard from friends and relatives of people who are in prison who urged her to help lower the cost of calls from U.S. prisons. Advocates say regulation would both reduce the price-gouging that the families of incarcerated people and contribute to the social good by reducing recidivism.

"For example, one fifteen-minute interstate phone call from prisons in two different states–one in the East and one in the West–costs about $17. For those families, they will spend an additional $34 over and above their basic monthly phone rate to speak twice a month for a total of 30 minutes," Clyburn said in a statement released after she met with the family members (PDF).

According to a Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) study, some families are forced to choose between keeping in touch with a relative behind bars and, in some cases, putting food on the table.

The issue falls clearly along racial lines: 35 percent of those incarcerated are Latino and 37 percent are Black. And many of them are poor, according to statistics from the Bureau of Prisoners.

A Colorlines.com story published earlier this year noted that close to 88 percent of people awaiting trial or serving time in jail had no income or made less than $1,200 a month.

In that same story, Colorlines interviewed a woman named Martha Wright, who said a 5-minute calls with her grandson could cost up to $18.

"You just have to get everything out in one line," Wright said with humor.

In most parts of the country states have no incentive to regulate prison phone companies because they also get "commissions." More details from PPI’s report "The Price to Call Home:"

Prison phone companies are awarded these monopolies through bidding processes in which they submit contract proposals to the state prison systems; in all but eight states, these contracts include promises to pay "commissions" — in effect, kickbacks — to states, in either the form of a percentage of revenue, a fixed up-front payment, or a combination of the two. Thus, state prison systems have no incentive to select the telephone company that offers the lowest rates; rather, correctional departments have an incentive to reap the most profit by selecting the telephone company that provides the highest commission.

"Connecting husbands to wives, parents to children, and grandparents to grandchildren should be a national priority because these tangible means of communicating not only will help these families keep in contact, but the general society benefits overall, as studies show that prisoners are less likely to re-offend if they are able to maintain these relationships with their loved ones," FCC Commissioner Clyburn said.

Along with hearing testimonies from friends and relatives of people who are incarcerated, the FCC officials attended a screening of "Middle of Nowhere," a feature film written and directed by Ava DuVernay that captures a woman’s struggle to maintain her relationship with her incarcerated husband. DuVernay made history earlier this year when she became the first black woman to win the Best Director prize at Sundance.