FCC limits price of prison phone calls

The Federal Communications Commission on Friday ordered telephone companies to limit the prices they charge prisoners and their families for interstate phone calls.

The agency will also seek public comment on whether to crack down on the price of prison phone calls within states.

Mignon Clyburn, the acting chairwoman of the FCC, fought back tears as she described the hardships that many people face having to pay exorbitant rates to speak with their family members.

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"Too often families are forced to choose between spending scarce money to stay in touch with loved ones or covering life's basic necessities," she said. 

She argued that cutting off inmates from their families and communities makes them more likely to commit new offenses. 

The commission adopted the order on a two-to-one vote with Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai dissenting. He agreed that prison phone rates are unfair, but said he worried that the FCC's order will be difficult to implement.

Civil rights groups have been urging the FCC to take action on prison phone rates for a decade, and the issue has been one of the top priorities for Clyburn during her term as interim chairwoman.

Martha Wright began the push for reform by filing a petition with the FCC in 2003 after her grandson was imprisoned. 

Prisons request bids from telephone companies to provide service and require each bid to include a fee to the prison. Critics argue the system encourages exorbitant rates.

A typical interstate collect call from prison has a $3.95 connection fee and rates as high as 90 cents per minute, according to civil rights groups. A 15-minute collect call could cost families $10 to $17, and a one-hour call once a week would cost $250 per month. 

The FCC's order will bar prisons from charging more than 21 cents per minute except for "extraordinary circumstances." 

The rate will also have to be based on the cost of providing service, including security measures and a return on investment for the company. Facilities that charge less than 12 cents per minute will be presumed to be in compliance with the new regulations.

Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel noted that 2.7 million children have at least one parent in prison.

"Phone calls may be the only way to stay in touch. Yet when the price of single phone call can be as much as you and I spend for unlimited monthly plans, it is hard to keep connected," she said.

Pai agreed that the FCC has an obligation to cut prison phone prices, but he worried that the commission lacks the "competence" to regulate the fairness of each provider's rate.

Instead, he said the agency should have imposed simple rate caps, with varying limits for jails and prisons. 

He expressed concern that the FCC's action could lead some high-cost facilities to limit their phone service or cut off access entirely. He also predicted that the agency's action will not survive legal challenges. 

Civil liberties groups, however, praised the FCC's move. Applause erupted in the agency's meeting room when the commissioners approved the proposal. 

"For too long, phone companies have preyed on the families of prisoners, charging exorbitant rates and fees that often forced people to choose between paying for phone calls to their loved ones and putting food on the table," Free Press President Craig Aaron said in a statement.

Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, said the commission's action "will secure just and reasonable rates for everyone to protect Americans from unreasonable discrimination."