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Extortionate Phone Fees Cut Off US Prisoners

DC Appeals Court Overturns Limits On Costs

An inmate makes a phone call from his cell at the Orange County jail in Santa Ana, California, May 24, 2011. © 2011 Reuters

A recent court ruling bars the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from establishing price limits on the cost of in-state phone calls made by prison inmates. That’s a big problem because call costs can be so exorbitant that they deprive prisoners of contact with their families, lawyers, and the outside world: a four-minute call made to a Florida inmate in 2014 cost US$56.

Concerned by such high prices, in 2015 the FCC set a cap on the price of inmate phone calls and was challenged in court by five companies that control most inmate calling services in the United States. However, under the Trump administration, the FCC declined to defend its own price cap before the appeals court in Washington, DC. The FCC can still cap the cost of out-of-state calls, but the court’s ruling means in-state phone calls will cost many inmates more than long-distance calls.

The soaring cost of communication for inmates has social, economic, and legal consequences. Many poor families with relatives in prison must choose between paying for food and rent or staying in touch with an imprisoned loved one. Children, who benefit socially and educationally from regular contact with a parent in jail, shouldn’t be barred from speaking to their parent because of the cost. Regular family contact can also help inmates prepare for the process of re-entry and reduce the likelihood of repeat offenses.

The DC court acknowledged that phone companies like Global Tel*Link enjoy local monopolies and can charge “extraordinarily high” rates. The government has also found a way to make a buck off inmates. Many prisons demand a commission on every call. In Kentucky, for example, an inmate’s in-state collect call to a cell phone costs US$9.99 for 15 minutes. The phone company pays a 54 percent commission on that call to the Kentucky Department of Corrections, earning it nearly US$3 million a year. Companies pass these costs on to inmates and their families through fees.

Some states have taken steps to ensure affordable inmate phone calls. Alabama has capped rates for in-state calls and eliminated commissions. Even so, a 15-minute call in Alabama costs an inmate US$3.75, compared to US$0.19 for inmates in Nebraska. State governments, with leadership and support from the FCC, should do more. All inmates – no matter how rich or poor – should be able to call home.

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