The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to cap the costs of phone calls for millions of inmates in prisons and jails around the U.S.
The move will make it easier for inmates and their families to stay in touch without paying exorbitant rates and fees, with some families paying hundreds of dollars a month just to keep a lifeline with their loved ones open.
Prisoners or their families currently spend an average of about $3 for a 15-minute phone call, according to the FCC. The new plan will set caps on phone call rates depending on the size of the prison or jail, ranging from 11 cents per minute for all state and federal prisons to 22 cents per minute for small local jails.
The plan will also cap service fees to between $2 and $5.95 for adding money to an inmate's account balance. Collect calls will be slightly more expensive at first, and then those extra fees will be reduced over the next few years. The changes will go into effect in 90 days.
"The greatest impact of an inmate's sentence often falls on the loved ones left behind," FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who has led the fight for the proposal, said at Thursday's meeting. "Families are being torn apart and this cycle of poverty is being continued."
Clyburn cited the case of a New Mexico girl whose family spent $28,000 across 10 years so she could talk with her incarcerated father a few minutes a month—an expense preventing her from buying a computer for school.
"In a nation as great as ours, there is no legitimate reason why anyone else should ever again be forced to make these levels of sacrifices, to stay connected, particularly those—who make up the majority in these cases—who can least afford it," Clyburn said, tearing up at one point.
Three of the agency's commissioners (all nominated by Democrats) voted in favor of the plan; two Republican-nominated commissioners voted against. "This order exceeds the commission's legal authority," said commissioner Ajit Pai.
Phone contact between inmates and their families has been shown to reduce recidivism and help inmates transition back to their communities.
“It will be a quantum leap in prison and jail phone industry reform,” said Alex Friedmann, the associate director at the Human Rights Defense Center, a civil rights group. “This doesn’t mean that the fight is over, but it’s a much-needed improvement on a system that has exploited prisoners and their families for decades.”
The business model for inmate phone calls is currently defined by multimillion dollar “concessions” payments that companies give to prisons and jails in exchange for the opportunity to operate there with a monopoly. “It’s a symbiotic relationship,” Friedmann said. The high costs get passed on to inmates and their families.
The industry is dominated by two companies, Global Tel Link and Securus, who together corner 90% of the market. The companies have opposed the FCC plan to cap rates, proposing a separate plan that would keep them higher but eliminate concessions. They’ve threatened to sue if the FCC goes forward with its plan. Neither company responded to a request for comment.
It’s a huge industry—Global Tel-Link was sold to a private equity firm for $1 billion in 2011.
“Can you think of any other context in America that a consumer pays a fee to make a payment for a bill?” Friedmann asked.
Chris Hoke, the pastor at a county jail in Northwest Washington state, told me that reducing the prison phone call rates would make his job easier. He tries to stay in contact with former inmates who have moved on to other prisons, and the only way to do that is often by phone.
“I get a call from one of my guys, and to accept it I need to pull over to the side of the road and get my credit card out,” Hoke said. “And it’s a minimum deposit of $50 and a service charge of $7 or $9.” He noted that many family members of inmates aren’t able to just “whip out the plastic” whenever they need to talk with their relative behind bars.
Hoke said he sees a broader significance of the high rates of phone calls.
“It’s not just about dollars and cents and telephones, it’s really about opening up communication between the land of the living and the land of the dead,” he said, in slightly dramatic fashion. “If we throw them away and seal off the air, they’re not going to have any chance.”
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.