Aug 10, 2013 1:02 PM by katc
The Federal Communications Commission on Friday approved rules to overhaul skyrocketing prison phone rates, dealing a blow to the handful of companies that dominate the market.
In a 2 to 1 decision, the agency voted to immediately cap how much prison phone-service providers can charge the recipients of an inmate's call at 25 cents per-minute so that a 15-minute long-distance call won't exceed $3.75. The FCC also banned the providers from charging extra fees to connect a call or use a calling card.
The federal order affects a previously unregulated segment of the telecommunications industry and aims to end the explosion of prison calling costs that have reached as much as $20 for a 15-minute call in some states.
The order also resolves a decade-long fight by District resident Martha Wright, whose petition to the FCC languished until acting Chairman Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat, revived it last year. Wright, now 86, had fought for changes to the system after she struggled to afford to call her grandson in an Arizona prison.
"It's been a long, long time coming," Clyburn said at the FCC meeting. She said 2.7 million children have a parent in prison and studies show that active communications between prisoners and their families helps reduce the rate of recidivism.
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, a Republican, voted against the rule, arguing that it would not hold up against a legal challenge. Prison phone-call rates are too high, he said, but the FCC's new rule is too complicated and would be difficult for the agency to administer.
The ruling upends a long-held practice in 42 states, where a few phone companies have held the majority of contracts to provide phone service to prisons, with little competition to challenge rising rates.
Global Tel*Link, Securus and Century Link, the main providers in prisons, have argued in filings with the FCC that their services are more expensive to operate and require higher fees. The companies did not return calls for comment.
The companies have offered prisons a percentage of the fees they charge to connect prisoners' calls. Prisons often use those commissions to pay staff salaries and benefits, as well as fund educational programs. Last year alone, prisons in 42 states received $103.9 million in commissions from the phone firms, according to Prison Legal News.
"It has been the commission's core responsibility in [its] 75 years of existence to make sure that phone rates are just and affordable for everyone," Gigi Sohn, president of public interest group Public Knowledge, said in a statement. "We applaud Chairwoman Clyburn for showing that the word ‘everyone' includes inmates and their families who have been mistreated by private phone companies."