The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to crack down on exorbitant prison phone rates, in a landmark victory for criminal justice reform advocates who have long criticized what they call abusive and predatory practices by phone companies.
"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 Thursday during the agency's monthly open meeting. "The system is inequitable, it has preyed on our most vulnerable for too long, families are being further torn apart, and the cycle of poverty is being perpetuated."
The new FCC rules cap the cost of prison phone calls at 11 cents a minute for debit or prepaid calls in state and federal prisons, and reduce the cost of most inmate calls from $2.96 to $1.65 for a 15-minute in-state call, and from $3.15 to $1.65 for a 15-minute long distance call. The new policy also cracks down on excessive service fees and so-called "flat-rate calling," in which inmates are charged a flat rate for a call up to 15 minutes regardless of the actual call duration.
"None of us would consider ever paying $500 a month for a voice-only service where calls are dropped for seemingly no reason"
Inmates in state and federal correctional facilities have long faced sky-high calling rates—in some cases $14 per minute—thanks to what inmate advocates call exploitative practices by the two companies, Securus Technologies and Global Tel*Link, that control the $1.2 billion prison phone market. Representatives for Securus and Global Tel*Link were not immediately available for comment on the new FCC policy.
Many criminal justice reform advocates say these enormous phone costs place an often-crushing financial burden on families who are simply trying to stay in contact with their incarcerated family members. A recent study by a coalition of groups including the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found that one in three families go into debt because of the high cost of maintaining contact with incarcerated loved ones.
"None of us would consider ever paying $500 a month for a voice-only service where calls are dropped for seemingly no reason, where fees and commissions could be as high at 60 percent per call and, if we are not careful, where a four-minute call could cost us a whopping $54," Clyburn said. "For the majority of those faced with these bills, high payments are their reality and incredible sacrifices unimaginable to most of us are being made. This is untenable, egregious and unconscionable."
The FCC's 3-2 vote—which represents a major achievement for Clyburn, who has made reducing the cost of prison phone calls a personal mission—marks the culmination of a decade-long campaign for reform sparked by the late Martha Wright, a Washington, DC grandmother who in 2003 petitioned the agency to make it easier for her to stay in touch with her incarcerated grandson.
Public interest groups hailed the FCC's new policy.
"For 15 years, families of those held in our overflowing prisons have been subjected to punishingly high rates from monopoly phone providers," said Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge, a DC-based advocacy group. "This policy benefits no one but the monopoly providers, often forcing poverty-stricken families to choose between paying their bills or staying in touch with their loved ones."
In 2013, the FCC approved limits on the cost of long distance calls for inmates. The new FCC rules further decrease those costs and expand the caps to in-state calls. The new policy was approved Thursday by the three Democratic members of the five-person agency, including Clyburn, Chairman Tom Wheeler, and Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.
"Inmate calling reform is not only the right thing to do, it's also good policy," said Wheeler. "Contact between inmates and their loved ones has been shown to reduce the rate of recidivism, but high inmate calling rates have made that contact unaffordable for many families, who often live in poverty."
The two Republican FCC commissioners, Ajit Pai and Mike O'Rielly, dissented, claiming that the agency lacked the statutory authority to enact the rate caps.
Criminal justice reform advocates praised Clyburn for her multi-year effort to reduce the cost of prison phone calls.
"In passing the most comprehensive reforms to date to the prison phone industry, champions like Commissioner Clyburn listened to those long considered voiceless—the families of the 2.4 million people incarcerated in the United States," said Malkia A. Cyril, executive director at the Center for Media Justice and co-founder of the Media Action Grassroots Network.
The FCC's new policy also "strongly discourages" the controversial industry practice of paying so-called "commissions" to correctional facilities in exchange for prison phone contracts. Many prison officials say these "commissions" are necessary to bolster cash-strapped prison budgets and help pay for inmate services, but inmate advocates call them "kick-backs"—the equivalent of legalized bribery.
The new policy excludes commissions from the FCC's determination of rate caps but does not ban them outright.
In comments at Thursday's FCC open meeting, Clyburn noted that the prison phone reform effort is part of the broader criminal justice reform movement, which is gathering momentum across the country. President Obama, who recently became the first sitting president to visit a federal corrections facility, is preparing to launch a new push for criminal justice reform.
"What may seem like a small step in the overall criminal justice reform effort will go a long way in enabling families to stay connected, which, in turn, should help to reduce our outrageous recidivism and incarceration rates, which are among the highest in the industrialized world," said Clyburn.