By Bernadette Rabuy
Technological advances may have brought down the costs of communicating, but there is a niche telephone industry that charges millions of families $1 per minute to keep in touch. The prison and jail telephone industry and correctional facilities profit from families desperate to stay connected. The phone companies reap high profits, and the correctional facilities use phone revenue to augment strained budgets.
In a typical market, consumers choose a product or service based on the lowest price and the best features. However, in the prison and jail telephone market, the state prison or county jail chooses the company that promises to pay the facility the most money in the form of a “commission” on the revenue generated from phone calls. The families that use the service and pay the bills have no say in the negotiations. Further, to recoup the cost of paying the commissions, companies often tack on additional fees that can amount to 38% of what families spend on phone calls.
Punishing families of incarcerated individuals with exorbitant phone rates is counterproductive. Because family ties are essential to low recidivism and successful reintegration, correctional facilities should encourage as much communication as possible between incarcerated people and their lifelines on the outside. Some state prison systems have already recognized the need for low-cost communication and have rejected commissions. As a result, the New Mexico and New York state prison systems, for example, charge less than five cents per minute.
After a decade of pressure from family members and criminal justice reform advocates, the Federal Communications Commission in 2013 set interstate rate caps of $0.21-$0.25 per minute. Since the caps went into effect, call volumes increased nearly 70% in some facilities. However, the ruling only covers interstate calls.
Thus, families pay more to talk to a loved one incarcerated a few towns over than they would if the person was incarcerated thousands of miles away. One mother who lives in Rhode Island but has a cell phone with a Texas area code pays $10.99 for a 15-minute phone call with her son who is in a Texas jail. If she had a Rhode Island area code, she would pay the lower rate of $3.15 for that same phone call. Because in-state calls account for 92% of all domestic calls in the prison and jail telephone market, most calls remain unregulated. In October 2014, the Federal Communications Commission decided to consider more comprehensive regulations and accepted comments from the public until January 27, 2015. A ruling is expected sometime in the spring or summer.
Unfortunately, prison and jail telephone companies are fighting to maintain the status quo, and the facilities themselves claim that they need the revenue from commissions. Although exact figures are hard to come by, the FCC concluded that just 0.3% of correctional facilities’ budgets is funded by the commission system.
The good news is that FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn and the Alabama Public Service Commission—which has reined in high phone rates, the additional fees, and even high rates for other communication services such as video visitation—have made regulation of this niche industry a priority. Although the FCC comment period is over, activists can make an impact at the state level because, ultimately, telephone justice is a political question. Legislators and state public service commissions need to hear from activists that regulation of this industry is both urgent and necessary. Activists can encourage their states to follow the lead of Alabama’s comprehensive regulation of this oft-hidden industry or to bring down rates by rejecting commissions as New Mexico and New York have done.
Bernadette Rabuy is the policy and communications associate at the Prison Policy Initiative. Previously, she worked with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, Voice of the Ex-Offender, and Californians United for a Responsible Budget.
This article originally appeared in the spring 2015 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.
Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.