federal communications commission proposes new rules to rein in prison phone rates

by Tim Phillips

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, has said that “challenging mass incarceration requires that civil rights advocates do something they’ve long been reluctant to do: advocate on behalf of criminals.”

On Wednesday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) finally proposed new rules that would reduce interstate phone call costs for prisoners and their families. In some states, a 15-minute call costs as much as $20. The reason prison phone rates are so high is that phone companies pay commissions (or legal kickbacks) to state government agencies for exclusive contracts at prisons, and then pass these additional costs on to inmates and their families.

Many civil rights groups, including the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Human Rights Defense Center, have been pushing the FCC to regulate prison phone rates. According to a September 23 New York Times editorial,

The time is long past for the F.C.C. — which has been weighing this issue for nearly a decade — to break up what amount to monopolies and ensure that prisoners across the country have access to reasonably priced interstate telephone service. … Overcharging inmates is not just unfair but also counterproductive, because it discourages inmates from keeping in touch with a world where they will be expected to fit in.

Several states have already lowered such rates by barring their corrections departments from requiring commission arrangements in telephone contracts. Federal prisons apparently use a less expensive, computerized system, though the federal system also makes a profit off of prisoners and their families.