Making Prison Phone Calls Cheaper: Why It Matters

A conversation with Mignon Clyburn, acting chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission
Acting chairwoman Mignon Clyburn at the Global Symposium for Regulators in Warsaw, Poland, earlier this summer (itupictures/Flickr)

Earlier this month, the three current members of the Federal Communications Commission voted on a question that had gone unanswered for a decade: How much should prisoners and their families have to pay to talk on the phone with each other? By a 2-to-1 vote, the commission decided to move forward with rules that will dramatically lower the rates of such calls.

On Friday I spoke with the FCC's acting chairwoman Mignon Clyburn about the commission's decision and what it will mean for those who are incarcerated and their families. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

Can you begin by explaining what was the issue with prison phone rates? What was the issue the commission was trying to solve?

Last year, I had a chance to meet with a number of family members, friends, and legal representatives of inmates, and they affirmed to me that for more than 10 years, they have been urging the courts and the FCC to ease the burden of the exorbitant prison-phone calling rates. They told me the stories of thousands of families who were making unbelievable sacrifices, trade-offs that were jeopardizing their everyday existence, to keep in touch with their inmate family and friends: They were not buying medicine; they were not buying clothing. And they asked the FCC to, at long last, bring about a just and reasonable rate regime. 

And so why were these rates so expensive? What were people paying for?

The structure [of the prison-phone market] is a bit different. It's not like the commercial market in which we engage. What happens is, the facilities put out a request for bids, and various companies -- currently the market is made up of a few providers and two providers have more than 80 percent of the market -- would answer the bid. The facilities would evaluate the bids, and what they were looking at was what was the most attractive bid for them. What that often included was a package, so to speak, that included commissions -- commissions that we have found in the record to be as high as 60 percent, and one or two examples even eclipsed that. And so what you would find was a rate regime that included that, on top of the other security protocols and the costs of doing business. This made for a very expensive regime that we addressed.

Can you describe what the FCC decided? How will the new rules work?

Once everything is codified, is that it will require inmate calling rates to be cost-based. (This action deals directly with interstate engagement only; the intrastate rates will be the next phase, and will come forth in a further notice.)

We have set up a system of rate caps and safe harbors. The rate caps are set at $0.25 per minute for collect calls and $0.21 per minute for debit calls. So what is now a conversation that could cost upwards of $17 for a 15-minute call between states will be capped off at $3.75. Any rate above that will require a waiver from the commission. The safe-harbor side of the equation, which is a standard that will presume any rates at that level to be just and reasonable, will be $0.12 per minute for debit calls and $0.14 per minute for collect calls.

Since the vote, have you heard from any of the families this affects? What has the response been?

I am down in Mississippi for the Congressional Black Caucus Institute's public policy engagement and I could barely get out of the car for all the individuals, from lawmakers to citizens in this regions, who are just elated and so pleased that this agency -- after 10 years -- has taken action to bring about a just and reasonable rate structure for often our most vulnerable families.

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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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