Stupid and Unjust: The Highway Robbery of Prison Phone Rates

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For nearly 10 years a petition seeking to lower the rates prisoners and their families pay to talk on the phone has languished before the FCC.

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Reuters

Over nearly two decades while he was in prison, Ulandis Forte would call his grandmother, Martha Wright-Reed, a couple of times a week and talk for about 15 minutes or less. The bill? Somewhere around $1,000 each year, Wright-Reed estimates.

To call home, America's prisoners (well, really their families, who accept the calls collect) pay rates many times what you or I spend on phone calls, the consequence of a dysfunctional marketplace in which the users have no choice but the phones provided -- literally a captive market -- and prison administrators can exact exorbitant commissions for providing the service. In Maryland, for example, where the commission can comprise up to 60 percent of the cost of a call, the rates are $2.55 for the first minute plus 30 cents per minute for intrastate calls and $2.70 for the first minute plus 30 cents for every minute thereafter for interstate calls. The state collected $5.2 million from such commissions in 2010. In effect, the high rates are a fee leveraged on the inmate population through which the prisoners fund their own incarceration. 

These figures come from a new Washington Post piece about Wright-Reed's petition to the Federal Communications Commission, which has languished unanswered for 3,500 days -- nearly a decade -- after a federal district judge referred the case to the agency for a decision.

A spokesperson for FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski told the Post that "the FCC is working with all interested parties -- including the families of inmates, prison pay phone providers, public interest groups, and the states -- to address the question of rates for interstate phone calls by inmates and their families, and we are preparing next steps," but, Justin Moyer reports, "here still is no timetable for when the FCC must rule." The FCC does not have the power to ban or reduce the commissions -- only states can do that (and many, such as Michigan, New York, Florida, and Washington, have). Failing that, it could establish benchmarks that dictate reasonable rates or, as the Wright petition originally sought, permit prisoners to choose among multiple carriers, thus introducing an element of competition to the marketplace.

A major study published last year found that visitation had significant positive effects on recidivism rates: Prisoners who were visited were 13 percent less likely to be convicted of a felony upon release, and 25 percent less likely to end up back in prison for a technical violation. Would increased social contact over the phone have a similarly positive effect? We don't know. The study didn't look at the effect of phone calls because "they are prohibitively expensive."

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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