FCC Votes to Lower Prison Phone Rates—Effective Immediately

On August 9, the D.C. Prisoners’ Project achieved a great victory in our 13-year fight against predatory phone charges.

DC Prisoners-FCC Prison Phone Rate Reform-FCC Commr  Clyburn DGolden WLCIntern 8 9 13 2We thank pro bono counsel Lee G. Petro from the law firm of Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP. With our partners involved in the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, we received the news that after more than ten years of advocacy, the Federal Communications Commission ruled on August 12, 2013 to lower interstate phone rates. This long-overdue decision ended a predatory prison phone market where families could be charged telephone rates as high as $1 a minute plus fees to speak to their loved ones. This ruling affects not just our clients, but the whole nation. In a country with more than 2 million incarcerated adults and where 2.7 million children possess an incarcerated parent, this decision was welcome news to families who struggled to remain in contact with loved ones in the face of exorbitant phone charges.

A 15-minute phone call costing upwards of $17 may be difficult to believe, but the reasons for these high charges can be partially explained by the process by which these contracts were awarded. In many states, the majority of prison phone contracts were awarded to only a few phone companies leading to an environment with little competition to staunch rising rates. While phone companies often argued that these expensive rates were justified by enhanced security features required for prisoner calls, their arguments fail to acknowledge pricey commissions that also increased phone costs. When phone companies compete for exclusive rights to operate in a jurisdiction, they often win these contracts by promising prisons and jails high commission percentages, artificially raising prices for prisoners and their families. An environment was thus created where two phone companies, Global Tel-Link and Securus Technologies, possessed over 80% of the market.

The Project began its FCC advocacy in 2000, bringing a putative class action lawsuit in D.C. District Court challenging these exorbitant rates. We claimed violations of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the 1996 Telecommunications Act, various consumer protection acts, and the constitutional rights of familial association and equal protection. In 2001, the court ordered that the case be referred to the FCC, to come back for further litigation after the FCC ruled on rates.

Fortunately, last week, the FCC did not agree that the high rates were warranted. Declaring, “For too long, the high cost of long-distance calls from prisoners to their loved ones across state lines has chronically impacted parents and children, especially among low-income families,” acting FCC Chairman Mignon Clyburn noted, “Multiple studies have shown that meaningful contact beyond prison walls can make a real difference in maintaining community ties, promoting rehabilitation and reducing recidivism.” A vote of 2-1 was received by the standing-room only crowd observing the hearing with applause and cheers. The current ruling created a safe harbor rate of $.12 a minute for prepaid calls and $.14 a minute for collect calls with a rate cap at $.21 a minute for debit and prepaid calls and $.25 a minute for collect calls. It also prevents phone companies from charging deaf inmates increased rates for the use of a relay service.

This ruling does not mark the end of the struggle for prison phone reform. Not content with only the ruling, the FCC also chose to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in order to collect more information concerning intrastate prison calls and the needs of deaf and hard of hearing prisoners. With the momentum of the current ruling, hope exists that more reform can be accomplished.

Media Coverage to date:

WBEZ Radio (Chicago)

LA Times

Reuters

The Raw Story


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