Prison phone companies are profiting from a pandemic, here's how the FCC can help

Prison phone companies are profiting from a pandemic, here's how the FCC can help
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These days, most of us are staying in touch with our loved ones by phone calls or video chats. A single phone call costs us nearly nothing, a video chat requires only a Wi-Fi connection.

But for millions of people, it isn’t so easy. As jails and prisons suspend in-person visits, most incarcerated people and their families are paying outrageously high costs to simply stay connected. The Federal Bureau of Prisons just made voice and video visitation free in its 122 prisons, and while noteworthy, this isn’t enough to ensure that the majority of families can remain in touch at such a crucial time. The majority of the incarcerated population, upwards of 1.7 million people, are in state prisons and local jails, where they will probably face excessive fees to call home. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) needs to push prison phone companies to lower their rates so every family can maintain a connection during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Incarcerated people, their families and other allies have been fighting for phone justice for years, but a pandemic like COVID-19 reminds us once again how cruel and unjust these exorbitant call rates are and why rate relief is needed immediately. Prison call rates can cost over $1 a minute and on average, an in-state phone call from jail costs three times as much as one from prison. The national average for a 15-minute call from jail is $5.74. Thanks to a helpful tool from the Prison Policy Institute, I know that by the time it takes you to read this op-ed, a call from New York’s Allegheny County Jail for this amount of time would cost about $7.50, just shy of New York’s tipped wage for a single hour of work. 

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These exorbitant prices for a simple phone call are an annoyance to some, but a barrier for most. People who enter the criminal justice system are overwhelmingly poor. Two-thirds of people detained in jails report annual incomes of under $12,000 prior to their arrest and as more people lose their jobs due to the pandemic, their ability to maintain a connection lessens with each passing day. In March, over 10 million Americans filed for unemployment insurance leaving more families to make the unthinkable choice between putting food on their table or having regular contact with their loved ones.

Prison phone rates are currently high because of two primary reasons. One, a commission structure that incentivizes jails and prisons to contract with phone providers that charge higher rates so they can reap a percentage of the profits. Two, there is a lack of competition between phone provider companies: the market is basically dominated by two phone companies. 

While some progress has been made over the last decade, the ability of incarcerated people to communicate with their families remains out of reach for too many. Help for the over two million incarcerated should come in the following ways:

  1. The FCC should request prison telephone companies offer free phone and video calls with no fees to incarcerated and detained individuals immediately for the next 60 days.
  1. The FCC should press the entire prison phone industry to commit to the Keep Americans Connected Pledge. Over 700 communications companies have agreed to waive late fees and not terminate service to help ensure that Americans can stay connected during COVID-19.
  1. The FCC should deny all companies’ request to stop paying into the Universal Service Fund (USF). The USF helps low-income families, schools, libraries and rural healthcare providers stay online and maintain voice service. These companies need to continue paying into this important fund in order for more families who qualify for programs like Lifeline (a discount program for low-income telephone consumers) to maintain a connection.

Some facilities are offering limited and temporary relief, such as one or two free calls each week but as the coronavirus spreads through America’s prisons and jails, families deserve to regularly hear directly from their incarcerated loved ones on how they are being treated and protected from the virus.

Being able to make phone calls and visit by video is more important than ever. With nearly half of the people in the United States are reporting that coronavirus is harming their mental health, experts recommend we “stay connected to one another” and  “communicate our fears and worries to another caring person” in order to cope. Incarcerated people and their families deserve access and opportunity to stay connected. Unless FCC Chairman Ajit Pai intervenes, incarcerated people and their families will either be denied outright or charged a premium just to check in on one another during this pandemic. 

Mignon Clyburn is a former FCC Commissioner and current Board Chair of Full Color Future, a think tank and advocacy organization committed to changing the narrative about people of color in media, tech and innovation.