August 4, 2016
Today, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) passed a proposal that will raise rate caps for all calls from prisons, jails, and detention facilities. This proposal comes less than a year after the FCC adopted comprehensive reforms of fees and rates in October 2015, which were partially stayed by a federal court earlier this year.
Families of the incarcerated and advocates with the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice are disappointed to see higher local rate caps, but are hopeful that these caps will not be stayed by the courts, setting the stage for full affirmation of the FCC’s actions to end predatory prison phone rates. The Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, a national coalition of more than 55 organizations, has been advocating for reforms for more than a decade.
“With this order, I hope we will finally see relief for families with an incarcerated loved one,” said 20-year-old Wandjell Harvey-Robinson, of Champaign, Ill., who was in the third grade when both her parents were incarcerated. “No one should be told their love is too expensive.”
According to the report Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration On Families, one-third of families of the incarcerated go into debt to pay for phone calls and visits alone – and nearly half of all families struggle to pay for food or housing because of incarceration costs. An estimated 2.7 million children have an incarcerated parent.
The FCC’s October 2015 reforms capped rates at a maximum of 11 cents a minute for all state and federal facilities, and between 14 and 22 cents for local jails depending on the size.
The FCC’s proposal would modify rates, to be phased in over two years, as follows:
13 cents/minute for debit/prepaid calls, in state or federal prisons.
19 cents/minute for debit/prepaid calls in jails with 1,000 or more prisoners.
21 cents/minute for debit/prepaid calls in jails with 350-999 prisoners.
31 cents/minute for debit/prepaid calls in jails of up to 349 prisoners.
The new prison rates are scheduled to go into effect 90 days from when it is published in the Federal Register and the new jail rates will go into effect 180 days from publication.
“For the past 30 years, prison telecom companies have collaborated with prison and jail officials to ruthlessly gouge the families of prisoners by providing low quality services at exorbitant rates,” said Paul Wright, Director of the Human Rights Defense Center. “Rather than accept modest FCC regulation of their obscene profits, prison telecom companies have stopped at nothing to exploit some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in America through court challenges and adding new fees on top of old fees.”
“With this recent concession, the phone providers and correctional agencies who have fought this reform no longer have reason to block progress,” said Steven Renderos, Organizing Director with the Center for Media Justice. “Although these rates are far above market price, we are hopeful this ruling will expedite the implementation of rate caps on prison phone calls we have fought for more than a decade to win.”
These rates will offer relief to families who are facing new efforts by prison phone companies to circumvent the impact of the FCC’s rules. Currently, because of the court stay, local rates face no federal limits. Evidence filed at the FCC indicates prison phone companies have been increasing local rates in seven states by up to 50 percent to make up for lost revenue due to the FCC’s 2015 ban on fees.
As federal caps on local phone rates are going up, state and local legislation has become the best hope for full reform. Nine states have effective rates less than 5 cents a minute. Prison phone justice bills were recently passed by legislatures in Illinois and New Jersey. Both bills are lower than the FCC’s modified rates, with 7 cent rate caps in Illinois, and 11 cent caps in New Jersey. In Nashville, the county sheriff lowered the rates in his jail to 5 cents a minute. These lower rates prove that phone services can be provided more affordably than the FCC’s proposed caps.
“We’ve come a long way to curb the worst abuses. We are grateful to the FCC for stepping in to protect consumers and provide transparency in an industry that for too long has profited from incarcerated people and their families. We remain optimistic that the new set of conservative rate caps will take effect without delay, bringing relief to families while we await the outcome of the phone company lawsuit,” said Cheryl Leanza of the United Church of Christ Office of Communication, Inc. “The FCC’s rules require prison phone companies to submit rate data every two years, ensuring that the FCC can continue to closely monitor and adjust rate caps in the future.”
The individuals quoted above may be reached directly at:
Cheryl Leanza, United Church of Christ, OC Inc., firstname.lastname@example.org, (202) 904-2168
Paul Wright, Human Rights Defense Center, email@example.com, (802) 257-1342
Steven Renderos, Center for Media Justice, firstname.lastname@example.org, (646) 276-7544