Advocacy and prison-rights groups applauded a move by the Federal Communications Commission to limit the fees charged to inmates and their families—which can total hundreds of dollars yearly. A leading sheriffs’ group, however, argues the caps could lead jails to stop offering phone services altogether.
One of the most controversial practices within the prison industry just got a regulatory rebuke, and it could make the costs of phone calls a little easier to swallow for inmates and their families.
On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that fees charged to inmates and their families for phone calls made from prison were “unconscionable and egregious.” The agency set caps for the first time on local and intrastate long distance calls, while further cutting fees for interstate calls. In some states, such calls once cost as much as $17 for a 15-minute conversation with added fees included; now, such calls will be capped at 11 cents per minute in state and federal prisons, only going as high as 22 cents per minute in small jails. Pricey add-ons, such as automated payments and paper-bill fees, have also been reined in significantly.
The decision came days after a number of advocacy groups and associations spoke up about the issue, sending a letter to the FCC, asking for changes to the policy. The letter, sent by the Leadership Conference on Human Rights, was signed by the NAACP, the National Organization for Women, Public Knowledge, the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, and the American Civil Liberties Union, among others.
“Exorbitant rates paid by prisoners’ families increase recidivism, place an undue and unfair financial burden, contribute to increasing costs, and are unnecessary,” the letter stated [PDF].
Prison reform groups, such as the Texas Inmate Families Association (TIFA), were quick to praise the decision.
“It makes me want to cry, I’m so happy,” TIFA Executive Director Jennifer Erschabek told the Houston Chronicle. “There are so many barriers and costs to families after their loved ones are sent to prison, and the high phone call fees can mean hundreds of dollars a year for a family to stay in touch.”
Stopping Phone Service Altogether?
The move, however, was met with criticism both from the companies that commonly provide the services—Securus Technologies and Global Tel*Link have each threatened legal action over the ruling—and from the National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA), whose members receive financial benefits from the companies that offer the service.
NSA CEO Jonathan Thompson has implied that facilities may no longer be able to offer phone services at all due to the new caps, which would limit the amount of money prisons and jails receive from the companies.
“You’re monitoring that phone call. That takes manpower, that takes time,” Thompson told NPR. “We’re looking at upping the number of calls, right? But yet, not increasing capabilities or the resources that go with it. That is a huge challenge for sheriffs.”
The FCC’s ruling, while capping the fees charged to prisoners, does not ban the commission fees offered to jails, which critics including Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders have derisively called kickbacks, according to The Huffington Post.