WASHINGTON – A decade after families of prison inmates asked for action, the Federal Communications Commission is moving to limit how much companies can charge for phone calls from behind bars.
The FCC was scheduled to vote Friday on a proposal to cap interstate phone rates at 21 cents a minute for debit or prepaid calls and 25 cents a minute for collect calls. Companies wanting to set higher rates would have to file a waiver and could not charge more until that waiver was granted.
Phone rates now fluctuate depending on the provider, the type of call and size of prison facility.
The FCC has said inmates, or those who pay their bills, are being charged fees of 50 cents to $3.95 to place a call, plus additional per-minute rates ranging from 5 cents to 89 cents. In some cases, a 15-minute call has cost $17 and numerous fees have been tacked onto the call charges. Inmates' families, many of them poor, usually are stuck with the bills. For security, inmates are not allowed to have cellphones.
Phone service providers and some law enforcement and government officials have resisted a phone rate limit, arguing the money helps pay for security, activities for inmates and general telephone infrastructure.
Often jail and prison operators take a share of the phone charges, which has contributed to higher rates. The FCC and providers call the practice profit-sharing commissions, but families call them kickbacks.
Years of study have built a consensus among law enforcement, criminal justice experts and policymakers that contact with family and friends reduces inmate recidivism, which benefits public safety and cuts taxpayers' costs for prisons and jails.
"Families, friends and those who represent inmates in the legal community will finally see rate relief," FCC Acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn, who proposed the cap, said Thursday.
"They will finally have an affordable rate structure," Clyburn said.
The proposal also calls for requiring the phone service providers to set rates based on their costs. Charges up to 12 cents a minute for debit or prepaid calls and up to 14 cents a minute for collect calls would be considered to be "just and reasonable" rates.
The petition asking the FCC to regulate inmate phone call rates was filed in 2003 on behalf of families after a judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Martha Wright-Reed against a private prison company. She had struggled to keep up with phone bills while her grandson was incarcerated. The judge directed her to the commission.