FCC puts cap on prison phone rates

The Federal Communications Commission passes an order that will limit how much phone companies can charge inmates for making calls, reining in what activists say are excessively high rates.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read

The Federal Communications Commission voted Friday to regulate phone rates for prisoners calling from jails and prisons.

The 2-1 vote to support the new regulation will significantly lower calling rates, which can total as much as $17 for a 15-minute phone call, or 10 times what an average per-minute calling rate is for regular consumers.

As part of the new rules, the agency will cap per-minute charges to 25 cents per minute, which means a 15-minute call would cost no more than $3.75. The FCC also banned extra fees associated with making collect calls or using calling cards.

Families of incarcerated inmates have been lobbying the agency and other government officials to do something to lower rates for a decade. Martha Wright of Washington was the first to file a petition at the commission to do something about the rates in 2003. But the petition languished, until FCC Acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn took up the cause last year.

"It's been a long, long time coming," Clyburn said at the FCC meeting. "For 10 years, the families and friends of inmates have been asking the FCC to ease the burden of an inmate calling rate structure. Their wait is finally over."

Clyburn, who became chairwoman of the agency when Julius Genachowski stepped down from his post earlier this year, said that the high rates have been especially burdensome on families of poor minorities, who are often stuck with the high bills. She also noted that 2.7 million children have a parent in prison, and that studies have shown that active communications between prisoners and their families helps reduce the rate of recidivism.

Mignon Clyburn, acting FCC chairwoman, addresses the CTIA 2013 spring show. CNET/Marguerite Reardon

Bethany Fraser, whose children's father is currently incarcerated, provided emotional testimony saying that due to these rates her family's phone bill is often as much or more than her monthly grocery bill.

"Under the current rate system, my family struggles to maintain ties," she said, fighting back tears.

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, the only Republican currently on the commission, voted against the measure. He has supported another proposal in the past that lowered inmate phone rates, but he voted against the measure on Friday, arguing the new rules would be too difficult to implement and would subject the FCC to court challenges.

During a press conference after the meeting, Clyburn said she was happy the new rules passed, even if she and Commissioner Pai do not see eye to eye on the details.

"What we all agree on is that these individuals have the right to get reasonable and just rates," she said, "and that the providers of these services are entitled to fair rate compensation. We may not agree on every footnote or line, but to bridge that gap, I prefer to focus on what we do agree on."

The prison phone market is essentially dominated by two companies: Global Tel-Link and Securus Technologies. These companies contract with states and counties across the U.S. to provide telephony services. In roughly 42 states, prisons are paid commission fees as part of the service contracts, providing big incentives to strike deals that tack on very high costs.

The phone companies have argued that the higher rates are necessary to provide the required security features of the service, which includes call screening, restricting phone numbers, and blocking three-way calls. Inmates are prohibited from using cell phones.

"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."