When families lose a loved one to the criminal justice system the task of keeping family ties becomes almost insurmountable. The location of correctional facilities in rural areas distant from cities, where most offenders call home, make it difficult for spouses, children and siblings to keep in touch with incarcerated family members. If distance were not enough of a challenge, for decades predatory phone rates have made it almost impossible for families to maintain regular communication with their relatives serving time in prison. A small cabal of phone service providers monopolized the prison phone market, charging usury rates for collect calls and piling hundreds of dollars in fees and rates upon family members. Unable to pay the excessive rates, many families were forced to sever communication with their relative; a result that has serious consequences for the successful rehabilitation and reentry into society of the incarcerated.
Last week the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued an order, that takes place immediately in jails and prisons nationwide, that ends predatory prison phone rates. The FCC reacted to interstate phone call rates that were as high as $17 for a 15-minute call in correctional facilities in some states. Since these calls can only be made collect, it was families that bore the burden of paying these inflated rates. As a result spouses discontinued communication with their partners and children could not speak to an incarcerated parent.
The issue was brought to the attention of the FCC a decade ago by an African-American grandmother from Washington, DC, Martha Wright, whose grandson was incarcerated in an Arizona prison. She could not afford to pay the phone bill, more than $20 each time she called her grandson Ulandis Forte on Sunday evenings. Wright petitioned the FCC to take action on the excessive rates. Forte spent 18 years in prison but is now a free man and has rejoined his grandmother, now 86 years old.
The FCC ordered on August 9 that all interstate inmate calling rates, including ancillary charges, have to be based on the actual cost of providing the telephone service. Phone companies had long argued that the cost of security features drove the price of prison phone calls upward and correctional agencies claimed that the revenue generated was used to provide services to the prison population. The FCC rejected both arguments.
The Commission order provides the following relief:
- An interim rate cap of $0.21 per minute for debit and pre-paid calls and $0.25 per minute for collect calls, dramatically decreasing rates of over $17 for a 15-minute call to no more than $3.75 or $3.15 a call
- Presumes that rates of $0.12 per minute for debit and prepaid calls ($1.80 for a 15-minute call) and $0.14 cents per minute for collect calls ($2.10 for a 15-minute call) are just, reasonable and cost-based (safe-harbor rates)
- These rates include the costs of modern security features such as advanced mechanisms that block calls to victims, witnesses, prosecutors and other prohibited parties; biometric caller verification; real-time recording systems; and monitoring to prevent evasion of
- restrictions on call-forwarding or three-way calling
The FCC also required that inmates or their loved ones who use Telecommunications Relay Services due to hearing and speech disabilities may not be charged higher rates.