Clock Ticking on FCC to Reduce Inmate Phone Call Rates

Clock Ticking on FCC to Reduce Inmate Phone Call Rates

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Of the 2.3 million Americans currently incarcerated in our nation’s jails and prisons, 1 million (43.4%) are African Americans, who are incarcerated at a rate six times greater than whites. “Nationwide, African-Americans represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, 46% of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons,” and although African Americans and Hispanics made up roughly one-quarter of the U.S. population in 2008, they constituted 58% of the total incarcerated population.

The unquestionable disparity in the national incarceration rate is compounded by the unjust toll inmate phone call rates place on families and those incarcerated — not only does the high cost of phone calls place an unfair financial burden on those bearing the costs, but it also keeps families unnecessarily disconnected.

As U.S. Senator Cory Booker and FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn recently noted in a joint op-ed, “the costs of these calls far exceed the actual cost of the call and take advantage of the lack of choices people in prison have in reaching family members and legal counsel. While prisons and private service providers enjoy the profits of these exorbitant charges, the burden is borne largely by, and at the expense of, incarcerated individuals and their families.”

Later this month, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote on a proposal to reduce the cost of interstate calls, taking rates “from $2.96 to no more than $1.65 for a 15-minute intrastate call, and from $3.15 to no more than $1.65 for a 15-minute interstate call.” Today marks the start of the Commission’s Sunshine period on this proposal, meaning that it will no longer take comments on the record about its proposed reduction.

Booker and Clyburn said it best when describing the heinous impact excessive calling rates have on families, especially when the only ones who benefit from the practice are prison facilities and call providers:

Currently, the prison calling system continues to leave millions of Americans paying their dues to society either struggling or unable to stay connected with the outside world. There are fees to open a calling account, fees to add money to the account, and fees to close an account when inmates are released.

These charges often weigh most heavily on inmates’ families, who may have also lost the primary earner in their household with their family member’s incarceration. Many families report paying providers $400-$500 a month, or over $5,000 a year, just to stay in touch with their loved ones — double or triple the average American’s monthly phone bill. We recently heard from a NAACP pro bono lawyer who paid $56 for a four-minute conversation from an incarcerated client.

Because there is only one call provider per facility, rates often go unchecked. In fact, many call providers have payment arrangements with correctional facilities whereby the facility receives a “cut” of the provider’s earnings — in one case, as high as 96 percent of gross revenue. These profit-sharing arrangements, known as “commissions,” create perverse incentives whereby prisons don’t seek the lowest rates for inmate calling services, but rather the provider that offers them the largest slice of the pie.

Allowing the current exorbitant phone call rates to stand in the height of injustice, especially in a system that disproportionately incarcerates people of color. The FCC has a chance to step up to the plate and do the right thing on reducing inmate phone rates, and this is one issue where they should really want to be on the right side of history.