A coalition of civil liberties and public interest groups are urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to cap the phone rates that prisons can charge inmates.
In a letter sent to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski on Friday, the groups said high phone rates unjustly punish the families of inmates and contribute to recidivism by cutting off contact between inmates and their families.
The letter was signed by groups including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, Consumers Union, Free Press, NAACP and the National Council of La Raza.
Conservatives David Keene of the American Conservative Union and Gary Bauer of American Values also signed the letter.
The groups explained that the current system for providing telephone access to prisons encourages exorbitant rates.
Prisons request bids from telephone companies to provide service and require each bid to include a fee to the prison. Inmates and their families have only one option for which service to use.
"The costs of the calls are passed on to prisoners’ families in the form of higher telephone rates, while the prison reaps the benefit of the extra fees and commissions," the groups wrote "Thus, prisons have every incentive to choose bids that maximize fees and maximize telephone rates."
The groups said inmates who maintain healthy relationships with their friends and families are less likely to re-offend.
Keene, who is the former chairman of the American Conservative Union, said on a conference call with reporters that the high rates make "no sense."
"This does nothing to further the safety of civil society. It does nothing to help rehabilitate those people who have been removed from that society as a result of criminal convictions," he said. "And in fact, it makes it less likely that these people will even be able to reintegrate themselves as useful citizens.”
An FCC spokesman said the agency is " working with all interested parties – including the families of inmates, prison pay phone providers, public interest groups, and the states" to address petitions on the high cost of phone calls for inmates.
"These petitions raise complex issues important to both the rehabilitation of prison inmates and the security of the nation’s prisons -- issues faced by both state and federal government," the spokesman said.