“Correctional agencies need those revenues either to lessen the financial burden that prison operations put on state and county budgets, or to implement programs that benefit inmates,” Stephanie A. Joyce, an attorney representing Dallas-based Securus Technologies, advised the FCC in October.
Securus and other phone companies serving prisons further note that they face costly security and monitoring burdens. Screening systems, for instance, must block inmate access to certain numbers. Automatic periodic reminders must be inserted to say the call is coming from a correctional facility.
Given these special demands, the companies insist their rates are reasonable.
“Inmate calling rates are decreasing dramatically,” Joyce advised the FCC.
Securus is one of several major competitors in the prison phone business, along with Global Tel*Link, PCS and Embarq, a spinoff from Sprint Nextel. The companies can be politically sophisticated, with several having hired lobbying firms.
In a personal meeting with the FCC in October, reported on the agency’s electronic docket, Global Tel*Link officials stressed that the company’s security systems have helped thwart recent prisoner plots, and that current policies work well.
“Uniform national rates for inmate calling could violate (legal requirements) that all payphone providers are fairly compensated, given differences in calling needs at each correctional facility,” Global Tel*Link’s briefing document stated.
Prisoners, by contrast, have historically been all but powerless, with personal histories that can make them appear unsympathetic petitioners.
Louisiana inmate Michael Zihlavsky called prison phone companies “rapacious beasts” and “hyenas” in his typed letter to the FCC. He is now serving a life sentence without possibility of parole for kidnapping and sexually assaulting a 7-year-old girl in 1998.
Lowers, the California inmate, does not identify his crime, but he has been incarcerated since 1995. Many of the inmate letters to the FCC originated at Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution-Greene, a maximum security facility where convicted Penn State pedophile Jerry Sandusky is among those now serving out a sentence.
The FCC can only regulate interstate calling rates, as individual states manage in-state rates, but Clyburn said she hopes others will follow suit even if the federal agency cannot compel them.
“I really think we’re showing, by example, a template for others to follow,” Clyburn said.