FCC looks to cuff prison phone fees

The Federal Communications Commission wants to see new rules to limit fees that prisoners are charged for making phone calls.

The agency on Thursday announced a draft rule that would tackle high charges and fees for in-state calls, a year after issuing similar rules for interstate calls. 

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Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat, told reporters that the proposal was a “simple market-based solution that will help ensure that all Americans — including inmates and their families — have access to phone service at rates that are just, reasonable and fair.”

Last year, the commission took action to rein in the high costs of interstate prison calls, which previously could cost 90 cents per minute in addition to a $3.95 connection fee. The new rules barred prisons from charging more than 21 cents per minute except in “extraordinary circumstances.”

"That was good news for inmates, their families and their legal representatives, but they and we know that much more work remains to be done,” said Clyburn, who has been a champion of reforming the current system.  

“Last year this time, we were hopeful that states would follow our lead by reforming the rates of in-state calls,” she added. “But with less than a handful of exceptions, that has not happened.”

Long-distance calls within a state can still rack up huge charges, she contended, and fees have increased for adding money to people’s accounts, shutting accounts off and other reasons. For instance, opening an account can cost $9.50. People looking to add $25 to an inmate’s account can expect an extra fee of $4.75.

Critics that the high costs are unfair and make it harder for inmates to stay in touch with their families, which only makes it more difficult for them to reintegrate into society after their release.

The new proposal would impose permanent caps on calls both between and within states as well as other fees charged to inmates. Charges for each call or connection would be banned. 

Clyburn and the other two Democrats on the FCC are likely to support the measure, but it’s unclear how the commission’s two Republicans will respond.