WASHINGTON -- Many jail and prison inmates will pay much less for interstate phone calls under a long-awaited policy shift that a divided Federal Communications Commission approved Friday.
The new price caps are a big victory for FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn of South Carolina, who’s pushed the issue. They also offer potential relief for the lesser-known likes of P.F. Lazor, who’s been incarcerated at California’s Corcoran State Prison since 1983.
“My mother is dying right now, and I can’t call her due to the high rates to Michigan,” Lazor wrote the FCC earlier this year.
Over the objections of groups such as the Idaho Sheriffs’ Association, the FCC set a top rate of 25 cents a minute for collect calls and 21 cents a minute for prepaid calls. Current rates can be roughly four times higher. The commission also directed that rates be “cost-based,” which rules out certain considerations that have increased contract costs.“It’s been a long, long time coming, but change has finally come,” Clyburn said Friday. “We see, and have learned, just how much of a difference telephone contact can make.”
Clyburn, who appeared close to tears at times, and fellow Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel, who’s a native of Hartford, Conn., voted for changes to the inmate calling service. Commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican appointee who’s a native of Parsons, Kan., opposed the change with what he said was a “heavy heart.” The five-member commission has two vacancies.
“I’m concerned the order will prove very difficult to administer and have unintended consequences,” said Pai, who’d offered an alternative proposal. He warned that the FCC’s “arbitrarily low rate” might result in some jails and prisons losing phone service altogether.
The new rules, which cover only interstate phone calls, apply to calls from all state, local and federal penal institutions. Many men, women and children will be affected. There are more than 1.3 million state prisoners and 216,000-plus federal prisoners nationwide. Clyburn and Rosenworcel repeatedly cited, as well, the emotional needs of the estimated 2.7 million children of inmates. The FCC agreed to further study on regulating intrastate inmate phone calls.
Prison calling rates vary widely now, and they can become prohibitively expensive for some.
A 15-minute long-distance interstate collect call by a Mississippi inmate costs $14.55, while the same call by a Texas inmate costs $6.45, a 2011 Government Accountability Office study found. A Prison Legal News survey found Georgia inmates paying $17 for a 15-minute call.
Under the new rules, a 15-minute interstate call will cost no more than $3.75.
The efforts to limit prison phone rates, initiated in an unsuccessful lawsuit filed in 2000 and a subsequent petition first filed with the FCC in 2003, have faced opposition from the handful of companies that control the business.
A number of states and localities, which collect hefty commissions from prison phone contracts, joined the companies. Nationwide, states collect more than $150 million a year from prison phone commissions, according to a Prison Legal News survey.
“The revenue stream associated with inmate phone calls pays for the additional security measures necessary to maintain institutional security,” Vaughn Killeen, the executive director of the Idaho Sheriffs’ Association in Boise, advised the FCC earlier this year. “The importance of these measures is demonstrated by the huge number of criminal cases that are resolved every year when an inmate phone call is submitted into evidence.”
Security systems instituted by the companies that handle prison phones included measures that block inmates’ access to certain numbers. Automatic periodic reminders also are inserted that say the calls are coming from correctional facilities. In addition, phone commissions pay for jail and prison programs.
“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 for Dallas-based Securus Technologies, advised the FCC.
The new FCC rule specifies that the rates be pegged to the cost of providing the telephone service. Commissions paid to jails and prisons as part of a phone contract can’t be considered part of this cost. Securus is one of several major service providers in the prison phone business, along with the Alabama-based Global Tel*Link, Louisiana-based CenturyLink and the Greensboro, N.C.-based Pay-Tel Communications.
The companies’ lobbying efforts have been offset, in part, by inmate letter-writing campaigns organized by a public-interest group called the Center for Media Justice. The Congressional Black Caucus, among others, also weighed in on behalf of limiting the rates. Among its members is Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., the father of FCC Commissioner Clyburn.
“Millions of families across this nation will soon realize a more reasonable and just rate structure,” Mignon Clyburn said.