FCC Eliminates Exorbitant Phone Call Charges that Separate Inmates, Families

By Kenrya Rankin Oct 23, 2015

Yesterday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to make communication between convicted offenders and their loved ones more affordable.

Inmate calling service (ICS) providers can charge inmates and their families up to $14 per minute to connect, but the 3 to 2 vote will cap rates for local and in-state long distance calls and cut the interstate long distance calling rate (which was previously capped in 2013) by up to 50 percent. In practice, calls originating from federal and state prisons will be capped at 11 cents per minute. And for small city jails—where service providers incur more costs to operate—calls will range from 14 to 22 cents per minute, based on the size of the offender population. Charges for collect calls will be slightly higher in year one, and then reduced to match the other calls.

The FCC also bans flat-rate calling and closed loopholes that allow service providers to impose exorbitant add on fees for things like using a live agent to pay. The changes will also require providers to provide free access to telephone relay service calls for offenders who have communications disabilities. The new rates will also apply to calls made from immigration detention centers to numbers in the U.S.

“Voting to endorse today’s reforms will eliminate the most egregious case of market failure I have ever seen in my 17 years as a state and federal regulator,” FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said on Thursday. She also noted that studies prove that inmates who are able to maintain contact with their family and friends are less likely to end up back behind bars.

Representatives from 26 organizations—including the American Civil Liberties Union, National Urban League, Innocence Project and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights—signaled their support for the policy change via a letter sent to the FCC last week: “Exorbitant rates paid by prisoners’ families increase recidivism, place an undue and unfair financial burden, contribute to increasing costs, and are unnecessary,” they wrote.

Meanwhile, the National Sheriffs’ Association issued a statement saying that it is “shocked and disappointed” by the order. “Criminals who are incarcerated sometimes continue their criminal enterprises from jail or prison. Anything from organized crime to gang affairs to harassment or intimidation of witnesses. All of those things contribute to the security measures and costs necessary to ensure the safety of the facility and the public,” said Executive Director Jonathan Thompson. “The rate caps established by the FCC will force many jails to limit, or eliminate altogether, access to phones because they simply cannot afford the cost of the service.”

(H/t The Huffington Post