After 10 Years, the FCC Upholds Just and Reasonable Action on Prison Phones

August 9, 2013

Today, the Federal Communications Commission voted to enact a framework that mandates just and reasonable telephone rates for the friends, family and counsel of inmates in state prisons and detention centers.

Today, the Federal Communications Commission approved a framework that mandates just and reasonable telephone rates for the friends, family and counsel of inmates in state prisons and detention centers. The order provides immediate financial relief to the households of the 2.7 million children with a parent behind bars who struggled with the cost of communicating with them. Public Knowledge commends FCC leadership for its action and congratulates the many advocates both in and outside the beltway for their dedicated efforts.

This long awaited action was facilitated through the outstanding and tireless commitment of FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn and staff, the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice as well as a wide coalition of civil rights, public interest and criminal justice reform organizations. Together these efforts ensure that the families and loved ones of inmates are no longer susceptible to the exorbitant rates and egregious fee practices of inmate call service providers. To emphasize, the FCC has done exactly what is in their authority according to the Communications Act, by ensuring that phone rates for a population of Americans remain just and reasonable.

No policy maker can argue the FCC’s authority over its action on this issue or the gross market failure of the inmate calling business that caused the commission to intervene. The commission offered ample time and an open docket for comment. During which it received thousands of calls, postcards and letters from families of inmates who described the financial and emotional hardships caused by the high cost to communicate with loved ones behind bars. High costs that were often attributed to a system run by state legislatures in which financial commissions or portions of call revenue collected by prison phone companies, were then filtered over to the states. 

Separating the actual costs of those calls from commissions is one of the key reforms included within the FCC’s order today. Ensuring the charges for calls are cost-based eliminates the practice of attributing the high costs to the commission arrangement. Other key reforms include adopting a “safe harbor” below $0.15 for providers, under which it must keep its per minute rate unless otherwise approved by the commission. Rates for the deaf and hard of hearing community cannot be higher than those of non-deaf inmates. The FCC also re-asserted its authority over intra-state rates, opening the process for reforming costs between facilities within the same states.

While further details remain to be seen, Public Knowledge believes these reforms are significant enough in scope to provide swift and much-needed relief for the families, friends and loved ones of persons in prison. Families like the two sons of Bethany Fraser-who lost half of her household income due to her husband’s incarceration. Choosing between the high costs of calls in order to keep her children connected to their father or paying for essential family needs became a real life dilemma.

Today the FCC took a step in the right direction by asserting its authority over predatory phone practices. Now children of incarcerated parents, including Fraser’s, can feel a little more connected to a loved one behind bars.

Original image by Strong Familes.