The FCC today unanimously voted to cut cruelly overpriced prison and jail phone call rates, imposed by telecom companies that have creatively fished for every last penny from incarcerated people and their families. In an announcement, the FCC said that interstate calls will no longer exceed $0.12 per minute for prisons and $0.14 for jails: about the hourly minimum prison wage ($0.12) for a job with the Federal Prison Industries corporation.
The wide-ranging exploitation has hurt hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of families. According to research compiled by human rights organizations, 34% of incarcerated people’s families have gone into debt in order to pay for calls and visits.
Unfortunately, the order will only cover a slim minority of calls, since it only applies to out-of-state and international calls. The FCC has been hamstrung by both telecoms’ legal pushback and the Trump FCC itself. In 2015, the FCC attempted to cap rates for all calls; prison telecoms sued; and in 2017, a U.S. Court of Appeals for DC decided that in-state calls fell outside of the FCC’s jurisdiction. Trump’s FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, unsurprisingly, dropped the fight. As the Brennan Center for Justice reported in 2020, the FCC lacks the ability to regulate 80% of calls.
The Prison Policy Initiative, which has been assiduously fighting this battle for years, has a helpful timeline.
Rates are highest in county and city-run jails, where rates are highest—up to, in Arkansas, $25 for a 15-minute in-state call in 2018. A 2019 report from the Prison Policy Initiative found that a 15-minute in-state prison call could run as high as $4.80. (You can even scroll to the middle of this page where a live ticker shows the rising cost of a call from your local county correctional facility.) Meanwhile, some of us can get basic service as low as $10 per month.
Telecoms with exclusive contracts such as Global Tel Link have been blatantly rent-seeking, at every available opportunity. Free tablets on which you have to pay for everything, for instance. Making family members travel to the facility just to be stuck with a paid video visit.
With contracts at a combined 5,400 correctional facilities in North America, Global Tel Link and Securus Technologies LLC dominate, each claiming to control communications for 1.2 million incarcerated people. According to the Los Angeles Times, Securus collected nearly $700 million in revenue in 2018. Global Tel Link claims to have processed $1.1 billion in transactions last year.
Congress can help put an end to the scheme. Last year, Congressperson Bobby L. Rush introduced the Martha Wright Prison Phone Justice Act, which would cap costs to intrastate calls at $0.04 per minute for prepaid calls and $0.05 for collect calls. It died in the last session.
Even that wouldn’t be enough. Calls from prison should be free.
Update 5/21/2021 8:40am ET: Prison Policy Initiative Staff Attorney Andrea Fenster told Gizmodo that, while they PPI is pleased with the move, it still represents a baby step. Fenster pointed out first that jails and prisons will “probably” be able to add an extra 2 cents to calls for commissions. (“I say ‘probably’ because we don’t have the full order yet, just the draft and press release.”) Fenster also would like to see an end to phone company kickbacks paid to facilities which pass an extra expense to incarcerated people.
The Prison Policy Initiative also reiterates that $0.12-$0.14 rate caps (limited to only a small percentage of calls) are still way too high. “At a time when the cost of a typical phone call is approaching zero,” Fenster said, “it is unconscionable that incarcerated people and their families, who are some of the poorest people in the country, are paying astronomical rates and fees just to call their loved ones.”