Last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued sweeping reforms to jail phone-call rates. In many states, prior to the reforms, the cost of a 15-minute in-state call could cost upwards of $5. In extreme cases, as a group of US Senators pointed out in a letter to the FCC Chairman, by the time “all associated fees are incorporated in the aggregate cost, a phone call can cost as much as fourteen or fifteen dollars for a single minute.”[1] With this in mind, the FCC instituted the following reforms:

  • 11 cents/minute for debit and prepaid calls in state or federal prisons.
  • 14 cents/minute for debit and prepaid calls in jails with 1,000 or more inmates.
  • 16 cents /minute for debit and prepaid calls in jails with 350-999 inmates.
  • 22 cents /minute for debit and prepaid calls in jails of up to 349 inmates. rates are now capped at 11-cents per minute for both in-state and long-distance calls.[2]

History of prison phone systems

Prison phone systems are not run by the state, but rather, private for-profit phone companies. Capitalizing on the vulnerability of prisoners and the families of prisoners, these companies have seized the prison calling system and instituted, what the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) has called, a “state-sanctioned monopoly.” In 2012, the PPI named the prison telephone industry “one of the most lucrative business in the Untied States.”[3] In 42 states, contracts with prison phone companies include provisions for prisons to receive “commissions” from the phone companies.[4] These contracts were awarded based on a bidding process. However, because of the nature of the commissions, the bidding works contrary to most forms of contractual bidding. That is, the prisons were not attempting to contract with the company that offers the lowest rates. Rather, it was in the interest of prisons to do the opposite—the company with the highest rate, meant the prison would receive a greater commission.[5] The PPI, along with a group of US senators, has called the commission scheme a form of legalized kickbacks.[6]

The move to challenge exorbitant prison phone rates began in 2000 when Martha Wright, along with other family members of prisoners and the Center for Constitutional Rights, filed a lawsuit against the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) seeking to enjoin, declare illegal, and recoup damages based on “conspiracies between CCA and various telephone companies, including Evercom, Inc., MCI-Worldcom, Pioneer Telephone Corporation, AT&T, and Global Telecommunications Link, Inc.”[7] The families alleged “unconscionable arrangements violated their constitutional rights to speech and association, their rights to foster and maintain family relations under the First and Fourteenth Amendments; their rights to due process and equal protection of law under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments; and their right to unimpaired freedom of contract under Article 1, Section. 10” amongst other claims. Eventually, the action was transferred to the FCC and the CCR filed for a rulemaking proposal. This filing became what is now known as the “Wright Petition.” In 2013, citing the Wright petition, the FCC adopted rules to cap the calling rates at 20 cents per minute for debit calling and 25 cents per minute for collect calling.

On September 25, 2015, nearly two years after the initial reforms, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn gave a speech entitled “Breaking the Cycle of Prison Poverty One Phone Call at a Time.” In this speech, the Commissioner highlighted the need for even greater reforms. Clyburn noted the racial disparities in prison populations (e.g., that “African Americans represent 12.3% of the US population but account for nearly 44% of the prison population”) and the fact that the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Just over a month after this speech, the FCC introduced the current reforms, slashing the prior caps by 40%-50% and reducing or banning many of the “ancillary service charges” which the FCC says added “nearly 40% to the cost of a single call” in some cases.[8]

The current reforms do not ban the commissions received by prisons from the phone companies. The FCC will review the impact of the current reforms and the possible need to institute new reforms in two years.

 

[1] http://www.ktvz.com/news/Wyden-to-FCC-Cut-exorbitant-inmate-family-phone-rates/35860442

[2] https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-takes-next-big-steps-reducing-inmate-calling-rates

[3] http://www.prisonpolicy.org/phones/report.html#_ftn2.

[4] http://www.prisonpolicy.org/phones/report.html#_ftn2. Citing: See John E. Dannenberg, Nationwide PLN Survey Examines Prison Phone Contracts, Kickbacks, 22 PRISON LEGAL NEWS 1, 4-5 (2011); see also Steven J. Jackson, Ex-Communication: Competition and Collusion in the U.S. Prison Telephone Industry, 22 CRITICAL STUDIES IN MEDIA COMMUNICATION 263, 269 (2005).

[5] 2012 letter to FCC Chairman from MN Congressman, Keith Ellison. http://apps.fcc.gov/ecfs/document/view;ECFSSESSION=J8GpJlBPwyJTTHBpGSQRZQfvTjQCBpx37V3yFWcN6FkLb3Gbnnnq!1957906226!1175060748?id=7022126529

[6] http://www.scribd.com/doc/285243275/101515-Prison-Phone-Letter

[7] https://ccrjustice.org/home/what-we-do/our-cases/martha-wright-v-corrections-corporation-america-fcc-petition

[8] https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-takes-next-big-steps-reducing-inmate-calling-rates.