Human Rights

Could Rip-Off Phone Prices for Prison Inmates Be Coming to an End?

Two prison profiteers sued after FCC voted to lower its prison phone cap rates.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

In the fall of 2015, the Federal Communications Commission voted to put a cap on the rates for all prison calls and ban the majority of add-on fees that had been imposed on the calls. The decision was a great victory for the families of inmates and criminal justice activists, who had been pushing for the rates to be eased for years.

Phone calls are a lucrative market for prison profiteers, as corporations arbitrarily assign ludicrous prices for communication. People often pay between $400 and $500 a month to speak with family members behind bars. On top of that, consistent fees (for charges like "maintenance") can increase the costs of calls by up to 40 percent.

In a speech around the time of the vote, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said:

"These rates and fees would be difficult for any family to bear, but if you were already struggling to stay afloat, you are now foregoing basic necessities like food and medicine just to make a phone call. No family should be forced to make this choice."

The FCC changes brought prison phone charges down to 11 cents a minute, about half the previous rate, though still above market rates. Nonetheless, two inmate calling companies, Global Tel*Link (GTL) and Securus Technologies, sued the FCC, arguing that they had unlawfully disregarded costs of providing such services. As a result, a federal appeals court ended up putting a hold on the FCC caps and the new rates didn’t take effect in March 2016, as they were supposed to.

Now, because of the issues brought up by the companies during litigation, the FCC has agreed to a new set of rates that is slightly higher than the reforms of last autumn.

Steven Renderos, co-lead of the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice and a member of an impacted family, told AlterNet he’s disappointed that the FCC is adopting rates higher than the ones families fought so hard for, but he’s also hopeful that these rates will take effect sooner—and if they do, he says, "all calls across the country, whether they are local or long distance, will be subjected to a uniform set of rates." Renderos also mentioned that he hopes the cost of the calls won't fluctuate based on a family's service provider or what state the inmate is imprisoned in.

Renderos continued:

"Our hope is that families will afford to be in touch with their loved one on the inside and in effect helping maintain the bonds prisoners will need to re-enter society once they're released. For too long, families have been subjected to exorbitant phone rates that prioritize the profits of companies over the connection between families. The FCC's reforms, though slightly higher than last year's reforms, are still considerably more affordable than the cost these families currently have to bear."

The same month of the original FCC vote, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton announced that her campaign would not be accepting donations from prison lobbyists or groups connected to the private prison industry. The move was seemingly symbolic, as Clinton had previously accepted $300,000 of such money, a small figure when placed alongside the millions she’s taken in.

Private prison CEO Damon Hininger was unconcerned with Clinton's stand against prison lobbyists, as a piece at the Intercept by Lee Fang reported. Hininger, the chief executive of Corrections Corporation of America, told an investor forum that there will be "so many things that [the next president is] going to have to deal with... both nationally and internationally, that I think having a view on our business, our industry, is going to be really, really low on the priority list."

But something that might make Hininger sit up and take notice was Clinton's vow, in the same announcement, to "end private prisons and private immigrant detention centers." As Fang writes, "That's not symbolic."

Watch a video of Wandjell Harvey-Robinson, a member of the Illinois Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, speak about the FCC victory below.

Michael Arria is an associate editor at AlterNet and AlterNet's labor editorFollow @MichaelArria on Twitter.

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