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Despite Lack of FCC Action, States Can Still Make Prison and Jail Calls Affordable

by Dale Chappell

Although prison phone service providers and law enforcement officials won their lawsuit to block the FCC’s $.11-per-minute cap on intrastate (in-state) prison phone calls [see: PLN, July 2017, p.52], states can still lower the rates – to even below $.11 per minute – and some have done so. Interstate (long distance) phone rates remain capped by a 2013 FCC order at $.25 per minute for collect calls and $.21 per minute for debit and prepaid calls. [See: PLN, Dec. 2013, p.1].

Governors and city and county officials have the power to stop the price-gouging of prisoners and their families by prison telecom companies, said Paul Wright, executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center, which publishes PLN and directs the national Campaign for Prison Phone Justice. While a number of states have lowered prison phone rates, at the county jail level “things are really a disaster,” he noted.

Many counties continue to charge $15, $18 or even more for a 15-minute intrastate call. The problem is “commission” kickbacks from phone service providers, noted Aleks Kajstura, legal director for the Prison Policy Initiative. Whereas government agencies usually contract with a vendor that can provide the best service for the lowest price, the prison phone industry is different. Corrections agencies have a financial incentive to grant monopoly phone contracts to the company that offers the most lucrative kickback – an arrangement that in any other context would be considered bribery, or at least improper.

In York County, Pennsylvania, for example, the jail averages around $1 million in annual kickbacks from its phone service provider. And those kickbacks rarely go towards helping prisoners; rather, they are often used to offset the cost of running the jail.

At least 11 states, however, including New York, have passed laws to ban commission kickbacks from phone service companies. New York’s prison system has reduced its already-low cost of phone calls from $.048 per minute to $.043 per minute. Mississippi cut the cost of prison calls to $.039 per minute in March 2018. And in West Virginia, the DOC reduced its phone rates to $.035 per minute several years ago. Currently, at least 23 state prison systems charge $.11 per minute or less for intrastate phone calls.

“If, as a policy, you’ve decided locking people up is in the best interest of the general public, you have to be willing to pay for it,” Kajstura said. In the majority of states, though, they help “pay for it” by receiving kickbacks from prison telecom companies, which charge higher rates and fees to preserve their profit margins.

Carrie Wilkinson, HRDC’s former director of the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, added that “the entire prison phone industry model is nothing more than a regressive tax on some of the poorest people in the country,” mainly consisting of prisoners’ family members.

“Price caps might happen in a few states,” said Wright, “but in most places we won’t see anything.” He noted that class-action litigation on behalf of prisoners could be the “next frontier” in the fight for lower prison and jail phone rates. “As people continue not finding relief with the regulatory or legislative process, litigation may wind up being a more equal playing field,” he said.

In Arkansas, a pending lawsuit against Global Tel*Link (GTL), the nation’s largest prison telecom provider, alleges extortion of a “captive market” of prisoners and their families through high phone rates. [See: PLN, Nov. 2017, p.14]. And in May 2018, the National Consumer Law Center, Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, the WilmerHale Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School and the law firm of Bailey & Glasser, LLP filed a class-action complaint in state court against the sheriff of Bristol County, Massachusetts and Securus Technologies, Inc. The suit seeks to “end an illegal kickback scheme orchestrated by the Defendants that has nearly doubled the cost of telephone calls made from Bristol County correctional facilities – causing harm to prisoners, their children, and other loved ones; making prisoner reentry to the community more difficult; and making legal representation more costly.” See: Pearson v. Hodgson, Suffolk County Superior Court (MA), Case No. 18-1360.

But litigation is not always necessary, and even simple reform efforts can work. In regard to Mississippi’s decision to cut prison phone costs, then-Corrections Commissioner Marshall Fisher said the rates were reduced after “We receive[d] constant complaints from inmate family members and others regarding the high cost of phone service.” In New York City, the city council approved a bill on July 18, 2018 that will allow jail detainees to make phone calls for free – a development that will be reported in greater detail in a future issue of PLN.

If states would regulate their prison phone rates themselves, either through executive decisions, legislation or the Public Utilities Commission or equivalent state agency, prisoners and their families would receive relief from high rates even absent further action by the FCC.

In early 2018 the Nebraska legislature introduced a bill (LB 776) to reduce the cost of phone calls made from county jails, by requiring “reasonable” rates and prohibiting “excessive” commission payments. A report by the ACLU, which spurred the legislation, found that jails were charging between $7 and $19 for a 15-minute phone call.

Former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who championed prison phone reforms during her tenure at the agency, recently told PLN that she is continuing to work on that issue during her one-year Leadership in Government fellowship with the Open Society Foundation. She called exorbitant prison and jail phone rates “the greatest, most distressing, type of injustice I have ever seen in the communications sector.”

Lastly, all is not lost on the federal level, as a bill introduced in Congress in March 2018, the Inmate Calling Technical Corrections Act (S.2520), would authorize the FCC to regulate “fair, just, and reasonable charges” for prison and jail phone services on behalf of consumers. That bipartisan legislation, however, has only five cosponsors and is unlikely to pass. 



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Related legal case

Pearson v. Hodgson