When it comes to sky-high telephone rates, it's hard to top the cost of making a call from prison - a phone call from an inmate across town may be ten times more expensive than ringing a friend in Singapore.
For a decade, prisoners' relatives and social justice advocates have clamored for the Federal Communications Commission to take action, joined in recent years by leaders from groups such as the Traditional Values Coalition and the National Association of Evangelicals.
Today, the FCC moved to address the issue, holding a day-long workshop on prison phone rate reform, which participants framed as an issue of basic fairness as well as social benefit.
"Multiple studies indicate that having meaningful contact beyond the prison walls can make a real difference in maintaining community ties, promoting rehabilitation and reducing recidivism," said FCC acting chairwoman Mignon Clyburn. "I believe that we must do everything we can to ensure a reasonable mechanism for families to stay in touch with their loved ones during this separation. Ensuring the costs of prison pay phone calls are reasonable will enable meaningful progress toward that goal."
Clyburn said that some state prisons charge a $4 connection fee per call, plus 89 cents per minute. "In some instances, the price of a single phone call from prison eclipses the cost of an average basic monthly telephone bill," she said.
Much of the money—about $143 million a year, according to a study by Prison Legal News — is pocketed by the states in so-called commissions.
To advocates, it’s a tax on prisoners' families and friends, who are ill-able to afford it. "The loved ones at home, they have very little disposable income," said Representative Bobby Rush (D - Ill.), speaking at the workshop. "They sacrifice food on the table, other expenses, just to stay in touch with their loved ones locked away."
Alex Friedmann, who is associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center and managing editor of Prison Legal News said, "Why are prisoners' families being price gouged in collusion with the state?" The decision to incarcerate people, he continued, is made by the government and should be borne by the government, not “externalized to the families of prisoners.”
The issue first came before the FCC after Martha Wright and 19 other people with relatives in prison in 2000 filed a class action in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeking a ruling that the phone service contracts entered into by prisons were illegal. The case was remanded in 2001 to the FCC, which issued a notice of proposed rulemaking in 2003.
Four years went by without resolution, so the petitioners in 2007 suggested that the FCC set benchmark rates of 20 cents per minute for calls placed using a calling card, and 25 cents a minute for collect calls.
In December 2012, the FCC issued a new notice of proposed rulemaking "to explore whether the current regulatory regime applicable to the provision of inmate calling services is responsive to the needs of correctional facilities, [inmate calling service] providers, and inmates, and, if not, whether and how we might address those unmet needs."
Cheryl Leanza, president of A Learned Hand speaking on behalf of the United Church of Christ's media justice and communications rights ministry, urged the FCC to move swiftly. "We cannot delay action on this docket. It's been 10 years," she said. "I don't think there's any question the FCC has authority over this issue."
Eight states in recent years have taken up the issue on their own and adopted prison calling rate reform.
Jason Marks, a former commissioner with the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission, shared his state's experience. "It works to regulate the service," he said. Three years ago, New Mexico capped phone rates at 15 cents a minute, plus a $1 connection fee. Among the supporters of the move: criminal defense lawyers, who "were also getting hit with huge bills," he said.
While Marks stressed that security issues related to phone calls are "number one and paramount," he said those considerations "really didn't limit us much on rate regulation."
In Virginia, state Delegate Patrick Hope, a Democrat representing Arlington, has introduced legislation to reform prison phone rates without success. At the workshop, he said Virginia’s general fund rakes in about $3.5 million in revenue each year from prison phone calls.
"What do we replace the lost revenue with? That's our problem," he said. "We need the FCC to act... Other phone rates are declining, but rates to families of inmates have done nothing but go up."