‘13 to 31 cents per minute’: Higher caps set for inmate phone calls

© Joshua Lott
The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission has proposed new higher caps on phone calls for inmates. For over a decade, critics have argued that the prohibitive rates for prison calls are detrimental to family ties and rehabilitation efforts.

Wanting to appease a court ruling and thwart legal challenges from prison phone companies, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, in a fact sheet statement released on Monday, called for his commissioners to consider rates for inmate calling services that “are just, reasonable, and fair for local and long-distance calls, and that the nation’s jails and prisons are compensated for reasonable costs of inmate calling services.”

Under the current system, every jail and prison signs an exclusive contract with a telephone company. Up until October, when the FCC first suggested a rate cap, the telephone company could sets rates and fees many times higher. It is common for a prisoner to pay $13 for a 15 minute call to their family.

Since October, the FCC has been able to implement an “interim” cap of 21¢ per minute for debit and prepaid calls, and 25 cents for collect calls, but only for interstate calls.

Under the latest cap proposals, calls would be 13-31 cents per minute for interstate and local calls, up from the previous cap rates of 11-22 cents. The caps would be higher at smaller facilities, and the 13¢ limit applied only to state and federal prisons. The FCC will vote on the new proposal in its August 4 meeting.

In March, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit blocked an order by the FCC to limit the cost of phone calls made by prison inmates.

Critics have long argued that the high rates limit prisoner contact with the outside, contribute to a loosening of family ties and prevent rehabilitation.

“If you are an inmate and you have strong ties to your family, you are less likely to reoffend,” Diane Goldstein of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition told RT in March.

The court put a stay on the part of the regulations over rate caps in order to allow prison phone companies Global Tel-Link and Securus Technologies to move forward with their legal challenge, intended to strike down the rule for good.

The prison phone companies argued the FCC’s limits fell short of what the companies are contractually obligated to pay in “site commissions” to correctional facilities.

The “site commissions,” according to the telephone companies, are kickbacks to the county sheriff or state correction department. According to Brian Oliver, CEO of Global Tel-Link, the FCC proposal would cut his revenue in half, and a better move would be to go after the “site commissions,” which can account for as much as 60 or 70 cents of every dollar an inmate’s family spends.

“Rates are high because people want commissions,” Oliver told National Public Radio. “And the people who set the rules, the counties and the states who want that income, directly create the high rates. When there are no site commissions, the evidence is clear: rates become extremely affordable.”

Some states like New York, Ohio and Rhode Island have outlawed site commissions. The FCC said in those states, prison phone rates are down, and call volumes are up.

Local sheriffs, represented by the National Sheriffs Association, argued the commissions help them pay for costs associated with running the phone systems. Emphasizing that phone service is a privilege and not a basic right, the group's CEO Jonathan Thompson told NPR in October they are considering ending inmate phone calls altogether due to the FCC's move.