Washington, DC – Today, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler and Commissioner Mignon Clyburn issued a statement 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 commission-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 commissions average 48% and can be as high as 96%. 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 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, most recently in December 2013.
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 in-state calls – which comprise an estimated 85% of calls from prisons and jails. Currently, in-state phone rates at
local jails are as high as $17.30 for a 15-minute call.
Several prison phone companies, including Global Tel*Link and Securus, have filed a legal challenge to the FCC’s order, which is currently pending.
The order followed tens of thousands of comments and petition signatures submitted to the FCC in support of reducing the cost of prison phone calls, which affect over 2 million prisoners and their families nationwide. Phone calls are the primary means for prisoners to communicate with their family members and children, and an extensive body of research has found that increased communication between prisoners and their families results in better post-release outcomes and lower recidivism rates.
According to the statement issued by Chairman Wheeler and Commissioner Clyburn, the FCC
is circulating a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for further reform of the prison phone industry, to ensure that prison and jail phone rates are just and reasonable.
Those reforms reportedly include permanently capping the cost of both interstate and in-state phone calls, eliminating commissions paid to correctional agencies and curtailing ancillary fees charged by prison phone firms – such as fees to open, maintain and fund phone accounts.
“The additional reforms being considered by the FCC are certainly welcome news, especially for the families of prisoners who have been price-gouged by exorbitant prison and jail phone rates for decades,” said HRDC executive director Paul Wright. “For far too long, prison phone companies have enjoyed monopolies that allowed them to charge outrageous fees – some of the highest rates in the United States – with virtually no regulation. Those days are finally coming to an end. As noted by Chairman Wheeler and Commissioner Clyburn, ‘The wheels of justice turn slowly.’”
“Eliminating prison phone commissions will save prisoners’ families around $128 million each year for calls from state prison systems alone,” added HRDC associate director Alex Friedmann. “That does not include tens of millions of dollars in commission payments to local jails, federal prisons, immigration detention facilities, and so on.”
HRDC and the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice will file comments in response to the Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, and will encourage prisoners’ families and friends to contact the FCC to share how they have been affected by high prison phone rates.
“We are currently seeking donations to support the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice,” Wright stated. “The fight to reform prison phone rates at the FCC has been pending for over a decade, and the new notice of proposed rulemaking is another opportunity to obtain much-needed and long-overdue justice for prisoners’ families.”
The Human Rights Defense Center is one of only a few national organizations working to reform the prison phone industry and reduce prison and jail phone rates. Other national groups working on this issue include the Prison Policy Initiative and Working Narratives.
Once released, the FCC’s rulemaking notice will be issued in WC Docket No. 12-375, also known as the Wright petition after Martha Wright – a grandmother in Washington, D.C. who was one of the original petitioners in the FCC proceeding, filed in 2003. Mrs. Wright was initially represented by attorneys Deborah Golden and Phil Fornaci, and is currently represented by Lee Petro with the Washington, D.C. law firm of Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP.
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.
For further information, please contact:
Paul Wright, Executive Director
Human Rights Defense Center