FCC Puts Caps On The Sky-High Rates Prisoners Pay To Call Home

Long-distance and collect calling aren’t something most of us have to think about all that often, anymore. But for the families of the 2.2 million Americans living behind bars, the monopoly contracts that exist on phone companies behind bars, and the exorbitant, sky-high rates that spring from them, are a huge problem — one that the FCC has just taken action to mitigate.

Making a phone call to or from a prison inmate is outrageously expensive. In 2013, the FCC adopted an order seeking to lower those rates and permit competition or alternative technologies in the prison phone space. Today, the FCC outright capped the rates that interstate inmate calling services (ICS) businesses are allowed to charge.

Currently, calls from inside a prison can cost as much as $14 per minute, and the process comes with extra fees and charges designed to drain inmates’ accounts from before a single second of voice time takes place. Today’s FCC action both flat-out caps the rates and also limits the fees. the rates and limits the fees.

The FCC’s new caps reduce the limit for ICS calls of 15 minutes or less to no more than $1.65. They also set the per-minute rate limits for prepaid calls to $0.11 per minute in state or federal prisons, $0.14 per minute for jails with 1000 or more inmates, $0.16 per minute in jails with fewer than 1000 but more than 350 inmates, and $0.22 cents per minute for the smallest jails. (Smaller institutions face higher costs from ICS providers.)

The new order also prohibits ICS providers from engaging in “flat-rate calling,” which charges inmates for a full 15 minutes of use no matter how long the actual call is.

The FCC also instituted caps on the “ancillary service charges” that go along with prepaid calling. ICS businesses charge inmates fees for everything: making payments, making minimum payments, exceeding maximum payments — if there is a thing you can do to put money on a card, there is a fee associated with it. The FCC now limits those fees to no more than…

  • $3 for automated payment through phone or website
  • $5.95 to pay through a live agent
  • $2 for a paper bill

ICS business can pass through third-party financial transaction fees (such as any imposed by Western Union) and relevant taxes or regulatory fees, but may not charge mark-ups. And all other service charges are now prohibited.

In her remarks, commissioner Mignon Clyburn spoke passionately about just how harmful the high costs are to prisoners’ families, talking about the thousands of dollars per year that parents, grandparents, and children of prisoners have to spend just to keep in the barest of touch. And even for those who don’t believe prisoners should have access to just, reasonable, or fair services, she pointed out, the costs are borne not just by prisoners but also by society at large.

“70,000 inmates are released every year, and too many of them return to their communities as strangers,” commissioner Clyburn said. “They are less likely to successfully re-assimilate and they are more likely to cycle back int prisons, because studies estimate that only 38% are able to maintain regular monthly contact.” In other words: increase communication, reduce recidivism, save money.

In her remarks, commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel pointed out the high costs of being poor or incarcerated: “Inmates are often separated from their families by hundreds of miles and families may lack the time and means to make regular visits,” she said. “Phone calls are usually the only way to stay connected. When the price of a single phone call can be as much as any one of us spend each month for unlimited monthly plans, it is hard to stay in touch.”

“This is not just a strain on the household budget,” she concluded. “It harms the families and the children of the incarcerated, and it harms all of us, because regular contact with kin can reduce recidivism.”

Commissioner Ajit Pai chose not to discuss the issue of ICS rates, instead focusing on the challenge of contraband cell phone use inside prisons, and the ways in which prisoners can use them to commit crimes, including extortion, from behind bars.

Chairman Tom Wheeler, however, brought commissioner Pai’s remarks back around to the issue aat hand, pointing out that, “the incentive for the use of cell phones in prisons is the absurdly usurious cost inmates face.” A contraband $10 burner cell phone makes a lot more economic sense for prisoners than a $54 charge for every individual call does, after all.

After remarks (commissioner Michael O’Rielly declined to comment, though he did submit written remarks for the record), the measure passed 3-2.