The Federal Communications Commission is poised to vote next week on the issue of reforming rates for Inmate Calling Services, which connect prisoners with their families and friends. According to the agenda for the Open Commission meeting on Oct. 22, they will be looking at a proposal “that would adopt comprehensive reform of intrastate, interstate, and international ICS calls to ensure just, reasonable and fair ICS rates.”
Jails and prisons contract out to service providers who, in turn, end up monopolizing. In an effort to stop the exploitation of prisoners for profit, the FCC will consider capping rates for phone calls.
According to a fact sheet released on Sept. 30, “In partnership with Commissioner Clyburn, Chairman Wheeler is proposing to cap rates for ALL ICS calls – local, long-distance, and international – while limiting or banning excessive fees on calls.”
The plan would limit the price of intrastate and interstate phone calls to $1.65 for 15 minutes. Interstate rates have been as expensive as $3.15, according to the sheet.
According to a 2013 report by Prison Policy Initiative, there are several factors that lead to inflated prices. After the prison system or local prison enters into contract with a service provider, they receive “commission.” In other words, they receive kickbacks for allowing the provider to operate within their facilities. Providers frequently raise prices in order to recoup profits lost to commission.
“These fees — the vast majority of which do not exist in the ordinary telephone market — drive the telephone bills charged to people with incarcerated loved ones to astronomical levels,” the report states.
A 2011 report by the Bureau of Prisons, an agency which works with federal prisons, looked into the effects of inflated rates on ICS calls. It stated that while inmates would benefit from cheaper rates, prisons and the companies they contract would make less in revenue and profit. This, they wrote, would limit the funds available for “inmate wages and recreational activities,” which links to “fewer opportunities for physical activity, idleness increases, and the risk of violence, escapes, and other disruptions also rises.”
Still, the report submitted to Congress states that lowering rates “could possibly encourage greater communication between inmates and their families, which BOP has stated facilitates the reintegration of inmates into society upon release from prison.”
The FCC’s website includes a database of public comments on docket WC 12-375, regarding phone rates for inmates, advocating for or against lowering rates. The bulk of recent comments come from a stock letter pre-written by activist group Silent Sentence.
“Over the last 15 years, inmates across the United States have had their communication with loved ones limited by phone rates that far exceeded those paid by the average American,” the letter states. “Meaningful reform of the ICS marketplace is long overdue and the Commission should be applauded for taking up this important issue.”
“When we put a prisoners in jail, we forget we put a family in jail along with children,” wrote E. Marie Green in a public comment filed on Oct. 7. “These children are exposed to the tragic situation of having a relative in jail only to lose communicate with them as well. Since most of these families are poor or low-income, we should not let the system prey on them.”
An e-mail sent out on Tuesday Morning by Victoria Ruiz of DemandProgress expands on this: “With so many families in America struggling to get ahead, these rates are an obvious burden on their bottom lines. And these sky-high rates hurt prisoners just as much, if not more — research shows that maintaining relationships with loved ones is a strong indicator of success for anyone returning to his or her community after serving time.”
In the e-mail, she encourages readers to sign a petition which will be delivered to the FCC, which urges the FCC to implement caps and stop companies from preying on families.
“As the Commission knows well, exploitative call rates create barriers to the maintenance of personal ties between inmates and family members on the outside. Such ties can be a crucial part of the re-entry process,” wrote Matt Borus in a public comment. “In other words, communication between inmates and family members is not simply a private convenience, but a public good linked to reduced recidivism and mure successful re-entry.”
One thing is clear while reading the public comments: the decision for the FCC to look into capping prices has been a long-time coming. The open meeting will be streamed on the FCC’s website next Thursday. The public can submit comments until then.