Step Up, FCC: Lower the Cost of Prison Phone Rates

Injustice often operates in secret ways. This has certainly been the case with predatory prison phone rates. But after nearly a decade of advocacy from public interest and civil rights groups, meaningful change is in sight.

In 2003, inmates and their families presented the Wright Petition, which asked the Federal Communications Commission to regulate prison phone rates. The FCC failed to act, so in 2007 the Wright Petitioners submitted an alternate proposal. Last December, the FCC finally invited the public to weigh in.

Monday marked the end of this initial comment period. Free Press and a coalition of 12 other groups, including the Center for Media Justice, the NAACP, the National Council for La Raza and the National Urban League,urged the FCC to cap inmate-calling rates at the lowest-possible per-minute rate.

Why is this so important? By making phone calls from prison more affordable, the FCC will make it easier for inmates to maintain connections with their families, friends, pastors and lawyers. That’s the right thing to do from a fairness and justice standpoint, as the FCC is mandated to ensure that affordable communications services are available to everyone. Lower phone rates allow inmates to preserve their ties to the outside world. This in turn facilitates reentry into society, reduces recidivism and strengthens communities.

Over the past 20 years, a remarkable boom in the U.S. prison population intersected with steady deregulation and consolidation in the telecommunications market. That unhealthy mix created a very lucrative prison-phone business. Phone companies have gotten away with charging sky-high rates and needless connection fees to the tune of $362 million per year.

A typical 15-minute call can cost more than $15. To speak with an incarcerated loved one for just an hour a week would cost $240 a month — and that’s on top of the regular phone bill.

Given that most incarcerated people hail from low-income communities, their families are forced to make hard choices about whether to keep in touch with their loved ones or put food on the table.

Exorbitant prison-calling rates do not just impact those confined by prison walls. Any policies that inhibit effective re-entry contribute to higher recidivism, which contributes to more crime and re-incarceration. As incarceration rates climb, there is a simultaneous draining of capital from offenders’ communities as the workforce is depleted and the state’s resources shift away from investment in affected communities — which are predominantly black, Latino and low-income — toward prisons.

The Center for Media Justice has collected dozens of stories from people who have been hurt by high prison phone rates. One woman describes how hard it was to keep in touch with her brother while raising his son and getting by on a limited income. Even though her brother is now home, her family still suffers from being unable to speak with him regularly for eight years.

For too long, phone companies have been allowed to prey on inmates’ families. The FCC should take action this year to cap prison phone rates and protect those who need it most. The agency must move out of the information-gathering stage — where it’s been mired for years — and provide real relief without any further delay.