FCC chairman puts end to 10 years of sky-high prison phone rates

Since its inception through the Communications Act, the FCC has always had the authority to execute and enforce “just and reasonable” rates to protect consumers. But for the last decade they’ve lacked the leadership to exercise their authority on unaffordable prison phone rates affecting vulnerable American families. Phone companies charge these captive consumers up to $1 a minute plus high connection fees, resulting in a 15 minute call that can cost $17 – or over $3,000 a year – for that phone call once a week.

These are prices that would never stand if forced upon the public. With the Internet today, it’s cheaper to make an international phone call through Skype or other technologies than it is to make an interstate call to a federal prison.

The FCC found that the marketplace does not offer competitive choices for inmates and families. Instead, they are absorbing up to 10 times the cost of normal interstate calls. These steep rates aren’t based on the actual services at all; 60 percent of costs go toward funding commissions for corporations and prison agencies.

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Thanks to the new rules, these kickbacks will no longer be considered the “cost of doing business,” and “fair compensation” laws that previously only applied to phone companies will require that carriers consider consumer affordability. As a result, prices will now range from 10 to 30 cents a minute.

This vote doesn’t just ease the financial burden on families of incarcerated loved ones. Research demonstrates that keeping families connected reduces the return rate to prison, is fiscally responsible, strengthens families and keeps communities safer. Our country’s incarcerated population is serving their time, but they have legal right to affordably communicate with their loved ones.

This is an incredible victory for Clyburn and the 90,000 Americans who called upon the FCC to lower interstate prison phone rates in the last year, including over 1,700 handwritten requests from prisoners. Members of the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice (PPJ), including the Media Action Grassroots Network, Working Narratives and Prison Legal News, together with media rights, civil rights, criminal justice, legal advocacy, faith-based and public interest organizations worked tirelessly to bring this vote to fruition.

But there is still work to do. This vote to reduce interstate prison phone rates does not protect the hundreds of thousands of prisoners and their families who rely on in-state calls to stay connected, or the unique needs of the deaf and hard of hearing community, who require videophone.

State legislators and regulators have the power to follow the FCC’s lead, and should extend universal access to affordable calls to all consumers of prison phone calls. Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Minnesota and Ohio, states with the highest rates, have the opportunity to lead the movement to end prisoner isolation.

For 70 years, the FCC has protected Americans’ right to communicate. This is an issue of human dignity, strong federal leadership, good governance and industry accountability. As the chairman nominee Tom Wheeler prepares to come onboard, it’s imperative that he continue to prioritize consumer protections to safeguard our nation’s most vulnerable communities and our most closely held national values.

Cyril is founder and executive director of the Center for Media Justice.