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HRDC quoted on costs for jail and prison phone calls

Oregonian, Nov. 7, 2015.

Elizabeth Hovde: Prisoners deserve fair phone prices (Opinion)

by Elizabeth Hovde

November 07, 2015

Everyone, clap your hands. That collective round of applause goes to the Federal Communications Commission for limiting how much phone companies can charge for calls to and from prison and jail inmates.

The new rate cap of 11 cents a minute for most calls from state and federal prisons, while providing tiered rates for jails to account for the higher costs of serving smaller institutions, will be appreciated by families and friends of the 2 million-plus people incarcerated in the U.S.

The vast majority of inmate calls will cost no more than $1.65 for 15 minutes. According to Oregon's Department of Corrections, it has been costing $2.40 for a 15-minute domestic call through Telmate, the exclusive service provider for inmate phone calls at all Oregon Department of Corrections facilities. In Washington, the average cost of a prepaid 15-minute in-state long-distance call to a prisoner is $3.15. Various fees, which in some cases have boosted calls to $17 to $25 for 15 minutes around the country, will also be limited. Changes take effect next year.

The FCC has studied the issue of pricey, inmate phone-calls for years. In a 2012 document it said, "We note that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has twice recognized the conclusions of Federal Bureau of Prison officials that contact with family 'aids an inmate's success when returning to the community' and thus lowers recidivism." It added, "We believe that regular telephone contact between inmates and their families is an important public policy matter ...."

Agreed. An inmate's connection to the outside world and his or her support system is important if we truly want a rehabilitative justice system, not just a punitive one. Children and other family members of the incarcerated are also often helped by that ongoing connection. Mignon L. Clyburn, an FCC commissioner and the point-person on this issue, thinks the telephone is a "crucial instrument for the incarcerated" and points out that distance, time and expense often make visits infrequent.

Companies certainly should be able to recoup the cost of their services and still make a decent profit. The FCC says its rule allows for that.

It does cost companies more to service inmates, and some of the extra per-minute cost is reasonable. Several security measures are required. Telmate in Oregon, for example, has a verification process that protects people from unwanted inmate calls and allows inmates appropriate access to life outside prison walls. Companies shouldn't be on the hook for such added costs.

To keep phone quality sufficient for inmates and profits decent, many states need to pursue an end to kickbacks that service providers must sometimes pay a state site commission for securing their exclusive contracts. The kickbacks inflate the costs of the phone calls and are passed onto prisoners. Governments making money from such contract commissions should wean themselves off budget income that comes at inmate families' expense.

The Prison Phone Justice Campaign at the Human Rights Defense Center says, "Up to 70 percent of the costs of telephone calls from prisons and jails have nothing to do with the cost of the phone service provided." According to the campaign, Oregon ranks 18th in the nation for the affordability of a 15-minute call.

The FCC was justified in getting involved, even though I get the lack of support the rule change received from two of the five commissioners. Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly, both Republicans, dissented, saying they believed they didn't have the authority to take such action. I don't think they were trying to be mean. I think they were trying to responsibly navigate state lines and the market. And possibly avoid this: The FCC has been promised a lawsuit for its recent action. That will waste resources that cost us all.

The commission's majority offered better navigation, given its mission. Specified in Section One of the Communications Act of 1934 and amended by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 it is to "make available so far as possible, to all the people of the United States, without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, rapid, efficient, Nationwide, and worldwide wire and radio communication services with adequate facilities at reasonable charges."

Inmates bring themselves and their families numerous consequences and hardships. But those families should not be responsible for making prisons extra money. And failing to destruct hurdles detrimental to inmates' rehabilitation can hurt them, their families and society as a whole. We should have no part of that.

Elizabeth Hovde writes Sunday columns for The Oregonian/OregonLive.



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