America's highest communications authority has voted to reduce the exorbitant costs of prison phone calls, currently set under a commissions-based contract model with private communications companies that some prisoner advocate groups have long compared to a system of "kickbacks."
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Thursday moved to cap rates for local and in-state long-distance inmate calling, which can sometimes reach up to $14 a minute — or $70 for a five-minute call. It also severely limited the ability of private prison communications providers to tack on additional fees and charges that push up the cost of calls.
"Reducing the cost of these calls measurably increases the amount of contact between inmates and their loved ones, making an important contribution to the criminal justice reforms sweeping the nation," the commission said in a statement.
The latest reformsbuilds on steps the FCC took in August 2013 to cap the costs on all collect interstate prison collect calls at 25 cents per minute, which it says has reduced call costs by up to 40 percent. Those caps, however, didn't affect intra-state calls, which make up the bulk of costs in the prison communications industry.Thursday's order addresses that, by setting a cap on all local and long distance calls from state and federal prisons at 11 cents per minute in an effort to "rein in the excessive rates and egregious fees on phone calls," the commission said.
Prisoner advocates say the new measures will help ease the financial burden on relatives of inmates who bear the brunt of the costs. In the September report "Who Pays? The True Cost of Mass Incarceration," researchers reported that at least one of three families surveyed said they went into debt because of phone or visitation costs.
"This FCC ruling will change that, and it is a win for strengthening families especially in the communities of color and low-income communities most deeply affected," said the report's co-author Alicia Walters, movement building director of Forward Together. "The impact of this vote will help keep families out of poverty so that their incarcerated loved ones re-entering society can have more stable foundations. Keeping families connected with their incarcerated loved ones is key to reversing the impact of mass incarceration on our communities."
The prison phone call system, as it stands, is based on a competitive bidding process in 41 states. Most state prisons receive commissions from contracted companies somewhere in the range of 20 to 100 percent of all phone call costs (the average is close to 42 percent), which equals around $128 million per year, according to statistics from the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC). Usually prisons will contract companies who pay more commissions. Only nine states do not accept any financial return from inmate calls.
"In any other context it'd be illegal, it would be a kickback, but in this context this is just business as usual," HRDC associate director Alex Friedmann told VICE News last September when the FCC first announced its intentions to overhaul the system.
In its statement Thursday, the FCC said it sought to close some the "loopholes" in the current system including by eliminating extra fees imposed by the prison communications companies on simple transactions such as opening and closing accounts or depositing money into them. The new order also throws out "flat-rate" calling, which sets call costs at a certain amount regardless of the length of the call.
"Extra fees and charges can increase the cost of families staying in touch by phone with loved ones who are incarcerated by as much as 40 percent," the FCC wrote.
The commission also acknowledged that "contact between inmates and their loved ones has been shown to reduce the rate of recidivism," by providing a lifeline to prisoners, as a range of studies over the last 40 years have shown. A 2011 Pew report found that across the nation on average, more than four in ten parolees end up back behind bars within three years of their release.
For prisoners and their families, phone calls are often the only lifeline to the outside world — a world that prisoners are expected to readily assimilate back into once they are released from prison.
"Sometimes visiting is not an option and the next best thing is hearing the voice of a loved one," Devin D. Coleman, a formerly incarcerated organizer with Florida New Majority. "I know from personal experience how vital it is to hear that voice of support, encouragement and hope from a family member."
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