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FCC proposes changes to lower pay-phone rates for prisoners

December 28, 2012|By Christine Mai-Duc | This post has been updated. See below for details.
  • Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, supports new rules on pay-phone rates for prisoners and their families.
Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission,… (Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg )

The Federal Communications Commission has officially proposed new rules that would lower interstate pay-phone rates for prisoners and their families, an issue it has been considering for nine years.

The agency said it is proposing rate caps, eliminating per-call fees, and other changes that would lower the costs of keeping in touch for inmates, who in some states can pay as much as $15 for a 15-minute phone call.

"This is not just an issue of markets and rates; it is a broader issue of social justice," said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement posted on the agency’s website. "When a single phone call may cost as much as a month of unlimited phone service, the financial burden of staying in touch may be too much for inmates’ families to bear." Rosenworcel is one of three appointees of President Obama on the five-person commission.

Commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican, said he believed in rates set by the free market, but was open to changing rules in the nation’s prisons. "Choice and competition are not hallmarks of life behind bars,” Pai said in a statement. "Inmates cannot choose among multiple carriers for lower rates."

The move comes a little over a month after the regulatory agency sought comment on a number of proposals stemming from a nearly decade-long lawsuit filed by Martha Wright, a grandmother who struggled with the costs of staying in touch with her then-incarcerated grandson.

“We’ve been waiting for FCC action for 10 years now,” said Deborah Golden, an attorney with the D.C. Prisoners’ Project, who has worked on the case for a decade. “We are so happy that something can move forward.”

Civil rights and religious groups have long argued that the rates, which some call exorbitant, cut off prisoners from their families and make it more likely that they’ll commit a crime again once released.

“Families who want to stay connected to their loved ones spend as much as the cost of a new iPhone every month," Golden said. "It just reached a point where the FCC had to act.”

[Updated 1:37 p.m. PST Dec. 28: FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, also an Obama appointee, said he was "pleased that we're moving forward ... on this important issue, which affects the families of inmates, prisoner rehabilitation, and prison security."]

Rates are set by contracts between state and local governments and phone companies, who often pay agencies a “commission” for each prison site. The result is widely varying rates; a 15-minute long-distance phone call can cost $2.36 in Massachusetts, and as much as $17 in Georgia, according to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts think tank.

The prison phone market is dominated by two companies – Global Tel*Link Corp. and Securus Technologies, Inc., who make up 80% of the market, according to Standard & Poor’s. Neither company has responded to requests for comment.

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