Inmates talk on pay phones in Maricopa County's jail in Arizona in 2008.

Inmates talk on pay phones in Maricopa County's jail in Arizona in 2008. Charlie Riedel/AP file photo

FCC Slashes Prison Phone Rates

Federal regulators overrode Republican opposition to cap phone rates for prisoners.

Fed­er­al reg­u­lat­ors on Thursday capped the rates that pris­on phone com­pan­ies can charge in­mates and their fam­il­ies, de­liv­er­ing a ma­jor vic­tory to civil-rights groups and pris­on­er ad­voc­ates who have been de­cry­ing al­leged price gou­ging for more than 14 years.

In a 3-2 vote, the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion de­clared that the cur­rent rates charged by phone com­pan­ies, which av­er­age about $3 for a 15-minute call and can some­times reach as high as $14 per minute, are “un­just and un­reas­on­able.” The new reg­u­la­tions will lim­it the cost of most 15-minute calls to $1.65 per call.

“For the ma­jor­ity of those faced with these bills, high pay­ments are their real­ity and in­cred­ible sac­ri­fices un­ima­gin­able to most of us are be­ing made,” said Mignon Cly­burn, a Demo­crat­ic FCC com­mis­sion­er who spear­headed the ac­tion. “This is un­ten­able, egre­gious, and un­con­scion­able.”

She ar­gued that the high prices un­fairly hurt the fam­il­ies of in­mates and that mak­ing it easi­er for in­mates to stay in touch with loved ones can help to re­duce re­cidiv­ism.

Martha Wright, a blind Wash­ing­ton, D.C., nurse who wanted to speak to her in­car­cer­ated grand­son, pe­ti­tioned the FCC to crack down on pris­on phone rates in 2003, but the is­sue lan­guished. Wright died last year.

“Today’s vote will nev­er make up for the in­ac­tions of the past, but it is my hope that the or­der will fi­nally bring re­lief to those that have waited for so long,” said Cly­burn, who teared up as she spoke of the bur­dens that high phone rates place on poor fam­il­ies.

Chair­man Tom Wheel­er and Com­mis­sion­er Jes­sica Rosen­wor­cel, the two oth­er Demo­crats on the FCC, joined Cly­burn and ap­plauded her ef­forts on the is­sue. While crim­in­al-justice re­form has been gain­ing bi­par­tis­an sup­port in Con­gress in re­cent years, Thursday’s ac­tion by the FCC was a strictly party-line vote, with Re­pub­lic­ans ar­guing that the agency was over­step­ping its leg­al au­thor­ity.

In­stead of ad­dress­ing pris­on payphone rates, Re­pub­lic­an Com­mis­sion­er Ajit Pai fo­cused his re­marks on the dangers of con­tra­band cell phones in pris­ons. “While be­hind bars, in­mates are run­ning drug op­er­a­tions. They are man­aging gang activ­it­ies. They are or­der­ing hits. They are run­ning phone scams,” he said. “The time has come to end this crime wave.”

The FCC already voted in 2013 to cap rates for pris­on phone calls across state lines. The com­mis­sion on Thursday tightened those rules and ex­pan­ded them to all calls with­in states. The com­mis­sion lim­ited ex­tra charges on calls and es­tab­lished a tiered sys­tem, al­low­ing more flex­ib­il­ity for smal­ler jails than ma­jor pris­ons.

Some civil rights groups had been press­ing for lower caps on the call rates, but ap­plauded Thursday’s ac­tion. “Today’s vote is a ma­jor vic­tory for black fam­il­ies and com­munit­ies, who are already cop­ing with dis­pro­por­tion­ate poli­cing and over-in­car­cer­a­tion, and who have for too long been seen as a bil­lion-dol­lar cash cow by pris­on phone com­pan­ies,” said Rashad Robin­son, the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Col­or of Change. “Pris­on phone com­pan­ies have profited off the backs of a lit­er­ally cap­tive audi­ence, char­ging un­con­scion­able prices with no cor­rel­a­tion to the ac­tu­al cost of ser­vices.”

Pris­on phone com­pan­ies like Glob­al TelLink, Se­cur­us, Tel­mate, and Pay Tel have claimed the de­cision will pre­vent them from get­ting “fair” com­pens­a­tion and have threatened to sue the agency.