Making Prison Phone Calls Cheaper: Why It Matters

A conversation with Mignon Clyburn, acting chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission

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.

We know things will be challenging going forward. But in terms of everyday people, this has been an engagement that I had (I should have maybe, but) I had no way to predict just how many people care about this issues, whether you're directly impacted or not. They recognize that this was the right thing to do -- that millions of families, the most vulnerable of families, will be able to speak to their loved ones who are incarcerated, in a more fair manner; that phone companies will be able to realize a fair compensation; and that this has the potential to address all of the other ills involved in terms of inmate engagement, including a high recidivism rate, disconnection with families, and the like. And so this action, this series of actions, will go a long way to helping to solidify family structures and to really help the nation as a whole as it relates to the cost of inmate engagement.

One thing that I think doesn't get enough attention is the fact that legal representatives of these individuals will now have a more affordable means to represent their clients. Because that has been put at risk. Everyone arrested and everyone incarcerated is not guilty of what they have been accused, and because of this unaffordable rate regime, there was one more barrier to having proper legal representation. And this action will definitely impact that type of exchange for these individuals.

Why was this important to you? What are your feelings about this whole process wrapping up?

We're on the eve of an incredible anniversary for civil rights advocates and those who care about the benefits and the promise America holds. The March on Washington commemoration will take place in just a few days, and I think about what this meant, what individuals were fighting for in terms of equity and the like. And I don't think it's an accident that this decision comes on the eve of that type of engagement. It just affirms the power of individuals -- particularly, we tend to concentrate on one individual, Martin Luther King.

But on this engagement I look at and remember one individual grandmother, Mrs. Martha Wright, who in 2003 joined others, and who is still fighting in a lot of ways for a just and reasonable rate structure. She reminded us that one person, one voice, can still spur a movement and drive meaningful change. And so when I think about what all of this means, I'm still digesting it, I'm still coming to terms with it. But this movement, and their tenacity, and their willingness to see it to the end, is really going to make a difference for families who are forced to spend scarce resources to stay in touch with their loved ones. It's really going to positively help and impact potentially millions of families who want to keep in touch with their loved ones.

I think about it and I say, this is why I opted for public service. Decisions like this. This is why I do what I do -- to close the divide, to bridge the gap. Regulators are here to be substitutes for competition. This was not a competitive engagement, and it cried for a regulatory solution, and we took the first steps to realize that. I am just so elated to be a part of this historic engagement, and it's going to make a real difference for friends and families and advocates and attorneys in this space.