After 10 Years of Delay, the FCC Begins to Address Unjust Phone Rates for Prisoners

Families can pay up to around $20 for just a 15-minute call with a loved one in prison. Perhaps that is about to change.

Families can pay up to around $20 for just a 15-minute call with a loved one in prison. Perhaps that is about to change.


For Americans behind bars, connections to the outside world are scarce: There are letters that come in and out, occasional visits from lawyers and family members, and, besides that, there is the prison payphone.

But the calls don't come cheap: Families -- who accept the calls collect -- can pay rates up to 24 times as much as a normal call, sometimes as much as $20 for just 15 minutes, though the charges vary wildly state to state. In Maryland, for example, placing a call can cost $2.55 for the first minute, and each additional minute will ring up another 30 cents (and due to dropped calls, sometimes prisoners can end up paying for that costly first minute multiple times in one conversation). The high charges are at least partly the result of commissions states can charge service providers for operating the phones -- a cost shifted to the prison population (literally a captive market) and their families. Maryland collected $5.2 million from such commissions in 2010.

And the burden likely extends beyond prisoners and their families: Increased contact with family is thought to be a significant factor in easing re-entry to post-prison life and reducing recidivism over the long haul. A big study recently found that 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. But the study didn't look to see whether phone calls could have a similar effect because, quote, "they are prohibitively expensive."

In 2000, former inmates and their families filed a class-action lawsuit over the fees. The following year, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the suit and directed the plaintiffs to file their plea with the Federal Communications Commission. In 2003, Martha Wright-Reed filed a petition with the FCC requesting that multiple long-distance carriers be allowed to serve a given prison in the hope that greater competition would bring down rates. She had been paying an average of $1,000 a year to speak with her grandson over the two decades he was in prison. Often, "she could't afford to pick up," he recently told The Washington Post. In 2007 an alternative petition was filed proposing price caps as the main mechanism by which to brings prices down.

Nearly 10 years passed with no answer from the Commission, but on Christmas Eve a hopeful sign was produced: a "Notice of Proposed Rulemaking," (pdf) the official declaration of the opening of a period for comment before handing down a decision.

As plain as the injustice of these rates may be, the question of how to address them is not straightforward. How do you decide what constitutes a fair price outside of a market system? How do you then achieve that price? The Commission's Notice lays out nearly 20 separate concerns related to just the rate-cap proposal, and then floats several other potential tools for bringing costs down (such as requiring some amount of free calls, with higher rates going into effect after the free minutes are exhausted), all with their own additional set of questions. The Commission asks for comments and data on each point.

For example, one question is whether there should be two different rates available -- one for calls placed collect and another, cheaper rate for those paid by debiting an account. The Notice explores this proposal:

Petitioners argue that collect calling is more expensive because its costs include billing costs and uncollectibles, while debit calling is less expensive because it reduces staff responsibilities and uncollectibles. Do commenters agree that there should be different per-minute rate caps for collect and debit calling? What are the benefits of debit calling? For example, do commenters believe that debit calling will exert downward pressure on collect calling rates?

They go on and on. Are there safety concerns with debit calling? They want to know. How will PINs be assigned? How will that workload be distributed? How will those costs be covered? What has the experience been of places where debit calling is already in place? In those prisons, how many debit calls are placed relative to collect ones? And the Commission doesn't want just vague hunches; it wants provable facts, based on solid data. At one point, the Commission subtly scolds a proposal submitted by the phone-service providers for including data "for less than 30 correctional facilities, none of which impose site commissions."

This may all seem rather fastidious but that's how change can finally (finally) happen.