Every year, 700,000 people walk through the doors of a correctional facility, back into a society that they left months or years ago. Who is waiting for them on the other side? When was the last time they spoke?
Fans of the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black know how important the prison's bank of phones is to the inmates. But what the show doesn't capture are the exorbitant costs that prisoners and their families must bear to maintain their connections -- much, much greater than what an average phone call costs. New rules approved by the FCC on Friday aim to bring down those rates.
The decision marks the end of a decade-long effort to get the FCC to regulate such calls, the costs of which are many times what an average citizen pays, though they vary greatly by state. In extreme cases, the FCC says, families and lawyers have paid more than $17 for a 15-minute phone call. There is no market in which competition could draw down rates -- prisoners are literally a captive market, with no choice but to use the phones the prison provides. Many states collect a commission on the calls, effectively adding a tax to the inmates' calls through which the inmates pay for the costs of their own incarceration.
In recent months, acting FCC chairwoman Mignon Clyburn made responding to that old petition a priority. In her statement announcing the FCC's 2-1 approval of the new rules, she celebrated the decision. "For ten years, family, friends and legal representatives of inmates have been urging the courts and waiting for the FCC to ease the burden of an exorbitant inmate calling rate structure," she said. "Their wait is at long last over. Borrowing from a 1964 anthem inspired by challenges of his time, the immortal songwriter Sam Cooke sang that it's been a long, long time in coming, but change has finally come."
The rule changes mandate that the rates of interstate calls be "cost-based." Acting chairwoman Clyburn said that this solution is "fair, is guided by the law and will provide significant financial relief for families without sacrificing the requisite security protocols." The new measures cap the rates at $3.75 for a 15-minute call, with an even lower "safe-harbor rate" advised.
Commissioner Ajit Pai voted against the rule changes, arguing that the caps and safe-harbor rates are too low for many jails and other small facilities, and that the FCC should have made different rates for jails than for prisons. Additionally, he expressed his concern about the position the new rules would place the FCC in going forward. "Nor do we have the resources to review the effectively-tariffed rates of ICS [inmate calling services] providers, to sort out legitimate costs from illegitimate costs, and to separate intrastate costs from interstate costs, possibly in every one of the thousands of correctional institutions in America," he said in a statement. "I am not sure how we will handle all of the disputes that are likely to arise with the limited and already-hardworking staff we have."
But for acting chairwoman Clyburn, the administrative challenges were outweighed by the concerns of families trying to stay in touch with those behind bars, particularly the 2.7 million children with a parent who is incarcerated. For these families, the new measures should make it just a little easier to stay connected, even when they are apart.