PLN issues statement on release of FCC's draft prison phone reforms
Human Rights Defense Center
For Immediate Release
October 1, 2015
FCC Releases Fact Sheet on Proposed Regulation of Prison Phone Industry in Advance of October 22 Vote
Washington, DC – Yesterday, the Federal Communications Commission issued a Fact Sheet on reforms related to the prison phone industry, titled “Ensuring Just, Reasonable, & Fair Rates for Inmate Calling,” in advance of a vote on October 22, 2015 in a long-standing proceeding to reduce the cost of phone calls made from prisons, jails and other detention facilities.
Historically, the cost of prison phone calls has been extremely high – more than $1.00 per minute in some cases. This is due to the kickback-based model of most prison phone contracts, which involves correctional agencies receiving “commissions” consisting of a percentage of the revenue generated from institutional phone calls. Such kickbacks average 48%, can be as high as 96% of the gross revenue from prison and jail calls, and result in inflated phone rates. The cost of the calls is usually paid by prisoners’ family members.
The Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), a non-profit organization and co-founder and leader of the national Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, has been working on reform of the prison phone industry since 1992. The Campaign has been instrumental in providing comprehensive data and analysis to the FCC related to prison phone rates and commissions, including data published in Prison Legal News, HRDC’s monthly publication, as well as online.
Under the leadership of then-Acting Chair Mignon Clyburn, the FCC voted in August 2013 to cap the cost of interstate (long distance) prison and jail phone calls at $.25/minute for collect calls and $.21/minute for debit and prepaid calls. However, that order, which went into effect on February 11, 2014, did not extend to intrastate (in-state) calls – which comprise an estimated 92% of calls from prisons and jails. Currently, in-state phone rates at local jails remain as high as $17.30 for a 15-minute call.
FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler, in partnership with Commissioner Clyburn, is proposing to cap the rates for all Inmate Calling Services (ICS) while limiting or banning the excessive fees added to such calls that have price gouged prisoners and their families for decades. After a 90-day transition period, the proposal will cap rates for debit and prepaid calls from state or federal prisons at $0.11/minute; similar calls from jails are capped at $.14 to $.22 per minute, depending on the size of the facility. Collect calls from prisons and jails would initially be higher and be phased into lower rates over a two-year transition period.
The FCC proposal would only permit three ancillary fees associated with ICS accounts, which would be capped: Up to $3.00 for automated payments by phone or online; $5.95 for payments through a live agent; and $2.00 to receive a paper bill. All other ancillary service charges would be prohibited. The FCC also proposes to ban flat-rate calling and “discourages” commission payments from ICS providers to detention facilities.
“We are pleased to see a reduction of almost 50% in the interim rates established by the FCC in February 2014 for prepaid/debit interstate calls from detention facilities,” said HRDC executive director Paul Wright, “and the rate structure proposed by the FCC for intrastate calls, coupled with the regulation of the limited ancillary fees, will bring significant economic relief to millions of prisoners and their families. HRDC commends Chairman Wheeler for his commitment to the protection of this marginalized consumer group. The need to address this issue has existed for many years, and we are here today due to Commissioner Clyburn’s leadership and dedication; her work will not only benefit prisoners and their families, but society as a whole because the ability to communicate during times of incarceration has been shown to promote smoother transitions from incarceration into our communities and reduced recidivism rates.”
HRDC continues to advocate for a $.05/minute flat rate for all prison and jail calls, a ban on all commission kickbacks to prisons and jails, a ban on all ancillary fees and greater transparency within the prison and jail telecommunications industry. While the FCC’s proposal is a much- needed and long-awaited step in the right direction, no one else in America pays as much for telephone services as prisoners and their families, and the costs are still much higher than 25 years ago, before the ICS kickback model became widespread.
The Human Rights Defense Center, founded in 1990 and based in Lake Worth, Florida, is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human rights in U.S. detention facilities. HRDC publishes Prison Legal News (PLN), a monthly magazine that includes reports, reviews and analysis of court rulings and news related to prisoners’ rights and criminal justice issues. PLN has around 9,000 subscribers nationwide and operates a website (www.prisonlegalnews.org) that includes a comprehensive database of prison and jail-related articles, news reports, court rulings, verdicts, settlements and related documents.
HRDC is a co-founder and coordinator of the national Campaign for Prison Phone Justice (www.phonejustice.org), in addition to MAG-Net, a project of the Center for Media Justice, and Working Narratives.
For further information, please contact:
Paul Wright, Executive Director
Human Rights Defense Center
HRDC Prison Phone Justice Director