Campaign for Prison Phone Justice

The "Campaign for Prison Phone Justice" is challenging prison phone kickbacks and the U.S. Prison Telephone Industry.

Live Blog: FCC Prison Phones Workshop

Jul 10, 2013 | by admin

Steven Renderos from the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice providing live updates from the FCC’s workshop on Prison Phones

4:20pm: Julie Veatch from the FCC closes out the event by thanking those that traveled far to be at the workshop.  Big shout outs to the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice team that traveled from New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, and Illinois to be here!

4:09pm: Final question of the day: does the FCC have the authority to lower or eliminate fees?

Lee Petro says, “Section 201 of Telecom Act says that the FCC shall put aside unreasonable rates and charges.”

Pay Tel says, “The FCC must address the fees issues, not just adjust the rates. Exorbitant fees have given the industry a bad wrap.”

4:08pm: Economist at FCC asks the panelists why some of the costs of incarceration are getting passed on to families and prisoners. Feels disconcerted that jail and prison telephone companies are asking the FCC to validate passing the buck on to families.

4:05pm: Pay Tel just announced that they will be submitting more data into the public record by next week. They agree that more data is needed to make the right decision on how to reform prison phone rates. Pay Tel says some of their costs for delivering phone service have actually increased.

4:00pm: Question from the crowd: If .07 cents is too low, what would be an appropriate rate? SILENCE. Well it looks like the FCC’s just going to have to decide on their own. Lee Petro points out that setting the appropriate rate would be possible if prison telephone companies would share what their actual costs for delivering phone service.  One prison telephone company submitted comments saying, “some of our costs have gone down, some of them have gone up.” Lee Petro pointed out, “That really nailed it.”

3:50pm: Myth: Commissions go to pay for Inmate Wellness programs. Lee Petro points out that in L.A. County half of their commissions go to maintenance. In other states like Wisconsin, Connecticut and Maryland, the majority of money go into the general fund at that state.

3:44pm: New technologies should be implemented into prisons but not at the expense of pushing out other forms of connection. In prisons that are implementing for-profit video visitation, jails and prisons are eliminating in-person visits. -Peter Wagner

3:35pm: Lee Petro is concerned with video visitation technology because a lot of companies are using it as a way to continue generating new revenues. Some companies are charging $15 for 15 minutes of video visitation, “digital” stamps for emails, etc.

3:32pm: Interesting exchange between Lee Petro and Mitch Lucas from American Jails Association. Seems Mr. Lucas doesn’t like Lee pointing out the situation in Charleston, SC. Also, Mitch Lucas believes that using labels like “kickbacks” and “profits” are misleading. According to PLN’s research over 115 million dollars were generated in commissions last year in prisons alone, much higher in jails.

3:28pm: Lee Petro: If you reduce the rate, call volumes go up. Telmate points this out in their comments to the FCC, the same happened in NY State. “If you have an increase in calls, and reduce recidivism by 1% that’s a saving of 250 million dollars across the country.”

3:25pm: Moderator, Commissioner Anne Boyle points out that VA Dept. of Corrections Director, Harold Clarke, submitted a letter to FCC supporting reforms. He was also the Warden in Nebraska and was the person who helped establish lower rates for phone calls in Nebraska.

Boyle also shares a study from Iowa that showed that children who stayed in touch with their incarcerated parents were less likely to wind up in prison. Lastly, she also points out a letter from New York State Corrections that says that lower phone rates has led to lower rates in “illegal” cell phone activity in prisons.

3:20pm: Peter Wagner from Prison Policy Initiative starts by sharing latest PPI report which focuses on jails and fees. Says that prisons release about 700,000 people a year but in jails 12 million people cycle through jails a year.  Since companies have to pay a commission, they “have to make their money elsewhere.”

They charge a fee for depositing money, they charge a fee to take out money, they charge a fee to set up an account, they charge fees for….you get the point.”

Peter points out that Securus and Global Tel Link charge the highest fees. “The market for prison telephones is broken.” Until FCC acts, states and jails will continue to receive commissions and companies will continue to recoup their cost through fees.

3:13pm: Vincent Townsend from Pay Tel supports FCC efforts to reform. Feels that consumers are entitled to a fair and reasonable rate. Does not support a rate at .07/cents minute. Needs to balance difference between jails and prisons, turnover rates are higher in jails than in prisons and impacts cost to set up inmate accounts. Lastly, Pay Tel supports the commission finding a solution to the arbitrary fees charged by phone companies.

3:10pm: Timothy Woods from National Sheriffs Association presenting. “A one size fits all” rate is not “just and reasonable” because it doesn’t take into account small jails and prisons versus others with higher populations.

He goes on to say that additionally, eliminating “kickbacks” doesn’t take into account the cost to manage the phone system in jails. He doesn’t support FCC efforts to reform.  Surprise surprise.

3:00pm: Telmate (prison telephone company) says that the proposal from the Wright Petitioners, .07 cents a minute is a “non starter.” He says that prison phone calls include security features like “bio-metric monitoring” to ensure that prisoners aren’t being forced to make a phone call on behalf of another inmate.

“Young kids these days don’t even know how to make a phone call, they text provide status updates.” So apparently that justifies not doing anything about it, because young people are on Facebook.

Telmate closes out their presentation by suggesting the FCC should do nothing and wait for states to address the issue one by one. It took years for 8 states to eliminate commissions and address rates, so how much longer do we need to wait?

2:54pm: “In how many ways will I be made to pay my crime.” -T.L. Terry prisoner

Attorney Lee Petro presenting. He represents Mrs. Martha Wright an 86 year old grandmother who sued prison telephone companies because of their exorbitant rates. As Lee points out, when Wright’s grandson was incarcerated she had to make the real life decision of whether to pay for expensive phone calls or pay for her medication.

Lee Petro filed a petition in 2008 requesting a cap of 20 cents a minute for prepaid calls and 25 cents for collect calls. “That was 5 years ago.” Indeed not much was done after this petition was filed. Two years ago, the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice was started and since then has been working to pressure the FCC to address this issue.

2:48pm: Mitch Lucas from American Jail Association points out difference between jails and prisons. Principally people incarcerated in jails are incarcerated in the same place where crime was committed. “We can’t provide telephone services at some of the rates discussed here (at this workshop.” He goes on to say that it’s expensive to make these calls because the calls must be monitored and recorded for security purposes. We’ve heard that before…

2:40pm: Third and last panel about to get started. On deck: Lee Petro (counsel for Mrs. Martha Wright) Peter Wagner (Prison Policy Initiative) prison telephone operators (Telmate & Pay Tel) and Sheriffs Associations. Should be a lively discussion!

2:30pm: Afternoon session getting started. You can watch online at

Chairwoman Clyburn introduced Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel who opened her remarks by saying, “I don’t want to keep you long, because we’ve already been waiting too long.” She went on to say that she’s excited that Chairwoman Clyburn has taken up the issue and that she looks forward to an order. “When a decision comes before me, I want to be able to vote it first, I want to be able to vote it fast.”

1:05pm: We’re on a lunch break til 2:15pm. Check back in then!

1:00pm: Question about prisoners being incarcerated in states away from their families. Commissioner Jason Marks says that FCC needs to act because they are the only ones that can regulate interstate phone rates across the country is the commission.

Prisoners and immigrant detainees are in fact being incarcerated and detained further away. On average male prisoners are incarcerated 100 miles away from their families, female prisoners 150 miles.

12:55pm: Amalia points out that Prison Phones impacts so many different groups of people: families, lawyers, churches, social service agencies, etc. Beyond prisoners, immigrant detainees often rely on phone calls to coordinate legal counsel, and organize family matter prior to deportation.

12:52pm: To question about whether lowering rates could potentially lead to prison phone companies going out of business, Commissioner Jason Marks points out that fewer companies exist because they’re buying each other out.  Amalia from CMJ points out that policy decisions should not be based on what the market yields right now, but how policy will impact the market.  Translation: calling friends and families will always be in demand.

12:49pm: Former New Mexico Commission Jason Marks shared that when his state was considering reform, they gathered data from phone companies to find out what the actual cost of delivering a phone call was and found that their proposals for caps were higher than these costs.

12:38pm: Commissioner Jason Marks points out that in New Mexico they approached reform by prioritizing the need for security. They found that it didn’t impact their ability to lower rates. Correctional Institutions realized that lower rates helped them achieve their mission to rehabilitate prisoners and became supportive of prison phone rate reform. Lastly, in New Mexico efforts to reform prison phone rates was a bi-partisan effort because regulators realized this issue was about fairness.

12:35pm: “To do what is right is seldom easy, but it doesn’t make it any less right.” -Amalia Deloney

Amalia points out that a piecemeal approach is not the solution but leadership at the FCC will provide a standard.  People across the country are looking at the FCC and their local state governments to both act to lower phone rates.

12:19: Jason Marks (NM) “It works to regulate. New Mexico stopped commissions, what we found was that it had made things better. We saw work around.  The companies will come up with charging rent for the wall space. Discounted calling cards. Computers as part of the contract. We found our rates were still high. We opened a few enforcement cases.”

12:16: State Rep. Pat Hope (VA): “We need to unravel this revenue stream that we have fallen in love with. FCC leadership on reform is necessary.”

12:06pm: Rep Eleanor Holmes Norton “What the commission is doing can have an impact on society.”

11:57am: Rep Eleanor Holmes Norton “I know that I speak for millions who cannot be here today who are impacted by this issue.  Members of Congress, get this matter done. A workshop of this kind opens how the commission thinks through this issue.”

11:45pm: Congressman Bobby Rush “It’s been a short road but a long way,” Rush on how long it’s taken to move the prison phones issue forward towards resolution.


11:27am: Getting ready for the “State Actions to Reform Inmate Calling Rates”

11:15am: Chairwoman Clyburn announcing there will be a 15-minute break. Check back in at 11:30am.

11:07am: Discussion about what else the FCC can be doing to impact prison phone calls. Rate reform is the obvious pick but Alex from PLN points out that competition is a big issue in this industry. Once a company secures a contract with a prison it becomes the sole provider, in effect a monopoly. In the industry as a whole there are only a handful of providers so looking at competition is another critical area to look at.

11:02am: Great discussion right now about the cost of incarceration to society. Alex points out that mass incarceration is a result of laws that have further criminalized people. U.S. has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners. If we want to lower the cost of incarceration, we need to look at repealing offenses and tough on crime laws like mandatory minimums that are incarcerating more people for longer periods of time.

10:58am: Alex points out the business model in the prison telephone industry. Prison Phone Companies pay a commission (“kickbacks”) to states based on the revenue they generate. These commissions can be as high as 70%.  This model does not deliver the lowest cost to the consumer, instead gives incentives to the highest commission to state budgets. “In other circles this business model would be seen as illegal.”

10:55am: Question about how to convince regular people about prison phones? Panelists point out that first step is dispelling myth that prisoners are the ones paying for phone calls, reality is that families bear the cost. Additionally, millions of people know what it’s like to receive a phone call from a prison.

10:50am: How do you weigh security in providing affordable phone calls? Panelists all point out that technology can provide the adequate security needed for monitoring phone calls. Since it’s all digital as Alex from PLN points out, “everything is stored, you can search keywords, you playback conversations, etc”

10:42am: “Prisons are allowed to externalize the cost to families.” -Cheryl Leanza, goes back to comments earlier from Delegate Patrick Hope who said that expensive phone calls amount to a tax on families. Prison phone companies are not being reigned in and other aspects of prison communications are getting com-modified as well.  Some prisons are now charging for emails, stationary, video calls, etc.

Charlie Sullivan believes FCC should look into Skype technology for prison calls. Delegate Hope points out that Virginia is charging for Skype already. Talila points out that the point is that the FCC needs to pay attention to changing technology and how that impacts communications in and out of prisons. Good point, advancements in technology are making communications cheaper.

10:33am: “Prison Phones companies make things more complicated than they need to be, and make us believe it’s more expensive than they are” -Talila Lewis, HEARD. Definitely true, they make it seem as if recording phone calls is a proprietary technology that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Clearly the NSA has found a way to do this for cheap, maybe we should ask them?

10:30am: Charlie shares his thoughts on why Free Phone calls might be a good idea for the FCC to consider. More free phone calls would reduce the prisoners who go back. Believes it’s unconscionable that the internet is not available in a lot of prisons. “We can get a man on the phone, why can’t we provide internet in prisons.” That’s a good point!

10:25am: Question about the relationship between reducing recidivism and lowering phone calls. Alex says no studies have been done to compare recidivism rates in states with lower rates than those with higher rates but studies HAVE shown that prisoners who maintains communications with their family (visits, letters, phone calls) successfully re-enter their community after their release.

Tim Meade from Millcorp shares anecdotes from families that use the “Cons Call Home” system are much happier and have stronger relationships with their incarcerated loved ones.

10:20am: Does the FCC have authority to regulate prison phone rates? Talila Lewis points out that students from Stanford Law School submitted comments pointing out the regulatory authority FCC has. Cheryl Leanza believes FCC definitely has authority and after 10 yrs, no more delays!

10:16am: Patrick Hope shares that if FCC moves forward on lower interstate phone rates it will help other states who are leading their own efforts to reform rates.

10:12am: Talila Lewis points out how easy and cost effective it would be to provide videophones for deaf prisoners.  Relay operators are willing to provide video phones for free, prisons just need to provide an internet connection. Many prisons won’t let video phones be installed.

10:08am: Interesting discussion right now about what defines an “interstate” call.  Alex from PLN points out that VOIP technology being used by companies like Securus routes all phone calls “local, intrastate and interstate” calls to central servers in other states. By his definition, all prison phone calls are interstate and therefore FCC has jurisdiction.

FCC defines interstate from where the call begins and where it ends.  Seems like their definition needs to updated given advancements in technology.

Tim Meade lays out infrastructure for prison call “Call gets routed to central box which converts it into VoIP call, then routed to central server (Millcorps calls get routed to Atlanta). It’s the same infrastructure that AT&T and companies like Vonage use.  It’s nothing special.”

10:01am: Q: What can the FCC do to affect state prison phone rate reforms? Cheryl Leanza: The FCC can provide leadership and set a benchmark for interstate phone rates.

9:55am: Charlie Sullivan from CURE presenting. Says that they have filed comments about prison phones to 7 different Chairs at the FCC. Believes we’ve “hit the jackpot” with Chairwoman Clyburn.

Also sharing the dire problem facing female prisoners. They’re isolated geographically (imprisoned further away from families than male prisoners) and are separated from their children. “Children are the forgotten victims of crime.” Affordable phone calls are vital to women prisoners.

9:50am: Tim Meade from Millcorp opens up with Mother Teresa quote and shares the real story of a prisoner who works in prison making .17/cents an hour. He works 40 hours a month to afford 29 minutes of phone calls.

Millcorp wanted to do something to make calls more affordable. Started Cons Call Home that allows families in other states to secure a “local” number to communicate with their incarcerated loved ones. Prison Phone Companies have blocked these calls. They want the FCC to finally address this issue.

9:44am: Talila Lewis from HEARD: A deaf prisoner faces isolation, apart from solitary confinement that hearing inmates experience.

Deaf prisoners pay higher rates for phone calls. TTY Communication requires at least 4 times as normal vocal communication. A deaf prisoner’s fiance paid $14 for a local phone call, same call is free for hearing inmates.

Affordable and accessible calls for deaf prisoners is a must because: 1. It’s the right thing to do and 2. because the federal laws mandate it.

9:40am: Challenge for women in prison: 1. Only make $22/month in prison. That needs to cover court costs and incidentals like “soap, deodorant, toothpaste, and phone calls”.  2. Separation from their children and the need to stay in regular contact.

9:39am: Cheryl Leanza of the United Church of Christ, quotes scripture to lay out that our [society’s] moral yardstick is our treatment of the poor, the hungry the sick and those in prison.”

9:35am: Delegate Patrick Hope from the Virginia State Legislature has introduced legislation to lower phone rates in his state. He says phone calls are vital because: 1. To support the positive development of a child with incarcerated parent. 2. Phone calls reduce recidivism.  and 3. Lower phone rates save money. “Saves the taxpayers money and makes our communities safer.”

9:31am: Alex Friedman sharing some of the reasons why we advocate for reforming prison phone calls. It provides a sense of humanity and dignity for families and prisoners. Companies shouldn’t profit from a family’s need for connection.

9:28am: 1st panel coming up. On deck to speak: Alex Friedman, Prison Legal News; Patrick Hope, VA Delegate; Cheryl Leanza, United Church of Christ; Talila Lewis, HEARD; Tim Meade, Millcorp; Charlie Sullivan, CURE

9:26am: Chairwoman Clyburn speaking at FCC Workshop.


9:23am: There are complicated questions to how to address high phone rates. This workshop is an attempt to bring all parties to the table and work collectively on a solution.  -Clyburn

9:20am: For the 2.7 million children, lack of phone calls with parents affects them in schools, in the home and their development.  Clyburn shouts out “Sesame Street” and their tools for children to discuss the impact of having a parent in prison.

9:15am: Chairwoman Clyburn lays out just how expensive calls can be with connections fees as high as $4 and per minute rates of .89 cents a minute. “When a 15 minute phone call in NY costs less than a dollar and next door in Pennsylvania cost $11, it shows the need for today’s workshop.”

9:13am: FCC Chairwoman Clyburn introduced. Welcomes elected officials, state regulators. “I get extremely excited when talks lead to action. Today marks another phase when it comes to prison phone rates.”

9:11am: Getting started! People can submit questions on twitter using hashtag #inmatecallingrate or emailing

9:09am: Almost ready to get started. Catch the livestream at

8:58am: A couple minutes from the start of the FCC’s prison phones workshop. Prison Legal News, CMJ, HEARD, CURE, NARUC, Prison Policy Initiative in the house…