For families, and taxpayers, end predatory prison phone fees

For families, and taxpayers, end predatory prison phone fees
© Getty Images

I know firsthand how important it is to stay in touch with those we love but cannot see regularly. My daughter lives in Costa Rica and we miss her terribly, so we talk to her on the phone daily. These calls are priceless to us, and they are free. But if my daughter were one of the 2.2 million people incarcerated in this country’s prison system, that 15-minute call could cost $25. At $1.66 per minute, prison phone calls are exorbitantly expensive, and many families cannot afford it.

For the thousands of spouses, parents and children with a loved one incarcerated, the financial burden can be overwhelming — and the emotional toll is gut-wrenching. No group in our society is more vulnerable than the families of people who are incarcerated, and none is more financially exploited.

ADVERTISEMENT

The high cost of prison phone calls falls almost exclusively on families and loved ones outside of prison, and nearly half of those families are low-income. These families should not have to choose between putting food on the table and being able to stay in touch with their loved ones in prison. It costs less to call Singapore than to call a loved one in a U.S. prison.

And there’s more than financial considerations at stake. Maintaining strong relationships among family members is a lifeline that can provide safety and improved mental health inside prison. Frequent communication can reduce the likelihood of recidivism, ensuring that formerly incarcerated people will succeed after serving their time, ultimately saving taxpayers money. What’s more, communication can be a positive influence on the choices and behaviors of adolescents, whether they are in juvenile detention or waiting for a parent to return home from prison.

So who are the profiteers who operate this $1.2 billion industry? How and why have lawmakers permitted them to prey on families for decades in states run by both Democrats and Republicans? It is crony capitalism at its worst, and it’s time to end this outrage.

Prison telecom companies have a largely unregulated monopoly on providing phone service to incarcerated people. Over the past few years, the Federal Communications Commission took action to cap their predatory rates, but the phone companies successfully sued in federal court to stop most of the new regulations from taking effect. In the absence of federal regulation, many states have started to take action, but many people still face incredibly high rates.

These companies are exploiting an unfair and uncompetitive system, increasing the incentives for sheriffs and state prisons to cooperate with these monopoly-providers to pad their own budgets. Prison phone companies pay commissions directly to the correctional agencies they contract with — kickbacks that have nothing to do with the actual cost of providing the phone service. Last year, Mississippi’s attorney general filed 11 civil suits alleging bribery of state officials in the selection of telephone contracts. One of the largest providers settled a lawsuit for $2.5 million.

There is a solution. A bipartisan bill (S. 2520) recently introduced in the U.S. Senate has the potential to end these abuses and promote just and reasonable charges for communications between people incarcerated and their loved ones. The Inmate Calling Technical Corrections Act  restores the Federal Communications Commission’s jurisdiction so the FCC can regulate rates where needed. The legislation is a carefully calibrated bill that will allow the agency to consider costs and the needs of families, prisons and jails to ensure predatory telephone rates do not exacerbate recidivism in our country.

Last month at the Senate Commerce Committee’s FCC oversight hearing, Chairman Ajit Pai confirmed that he supports returning authority to the FCC, and that he’d take into account all state and local concerns about the costs of prison phone calls. Nothing should stand in the way of this legislation.

Sound public policy dictates that we should not disincentivize the very behavior that will keep families together and, in turn, reduce future crime and save taxpayers money. The Senate should quickly consider and adopt the Inmate Calling Technical Corrections Act, and the House should follow suit.

Robert L. Woodson Sr. founded The Woodson Center in 1981 to help residents of low-income neighborhoods address problems of their communities. He has headed the National Urban League Department of Criminal Justice, and has been a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Foundation for Public Policy Research. Follow him on Twitter @BobWoodson.