In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission took action to rein in the $1.2 billion dollar prison phone industry. Prior to this action, prisons would charge outrageous amounts — up to $14 a minute — for inmates to contact family on the outside. The FCC’s new rule limited rates to no more than $1.65 for most 15 minute calls. Recently however, new leadership at the FCC declined to defend legal challenges from the for-profit prison phone industry to the Commission’s intrastate (long distance calls within a state) rate caps. This is a huge mistake that will hurt families and communities across the nation.
The prison phone industry is unlikely to change on its own accord. Unlike traditional telephone companies, prison phone providers do not compete to provide the lowest price and best service in order to win consumers’ dollars. Instead, they compete to see who can offer prison operators — often for-profit entities themselves — the biggest cut of the profits they make off of their literally captive customer base. These kickbacks are extremely lucrative. Arizona, for instance, receives a 93.9 percent commission on inmates’ phone service revenue, providing the state with more than $4.3 million per year.
This is deeply troubling on many levels. First, the high cost of prison phone calls is a key contributor to America’s high recidivism rates. Numerousstudies have shown that one of the most efficient ways to reduce recidivism is for inmates to maintain contact with loved ones during their incarceration. With literacy and geographic barriers, the easiest way to maintain this contact is through phone communication. Without FCC action, it is less likely that we will see the current recidivism rates of nearly 50 percent decrease significantly. By allowing prisons to continue charging unaffordable rates, the FCC’s action makes it more likely that taxpayers will continue to underwrite the cost of housing of inmates who return to prison after release.
Exorbitant prison phone rates also create a more dangerous environment for inmates and their guards. An inmate’s inability to afford conversations with their loved ones leads to conflict. One study found that the high rates charged by prison phone companies caused a black market of illegal cellphones to pop up and contributed to sometimes violent thefts of inmates’ PIN numbers — numbers linked to financial accounts that inmates and family members deposit money into to prepay prison phone bills. The same study also found that inmates purposely cause fights and create security problems with the hopes of getting transferred to a facility with cheaper phone rates.
We can see that prison phone rates cause great hardship inside of prisons. And the issues they create outside of the corrections system are equally troubling. Media accounts abound of grandmothers, parents, and spouses having to choose between accepting a prohibitively expensive phone call from a loved one or paying for groceries. Young children cannot maintain any relationship with their incarcerated parent without a means of communication. Consumers face frequently dropped calls and monthly phone bills of $100, $400, or even $1,000, if a loved one was unfortunate enough to be placed in one of the prisons with a higher rate phone system.
Expensive prison phone rates can also prevent detainees and suspects from getting the legal help they need. One report found that some public defenders are forced to spend more than $100,000 a year accepting calls from prisoners. That money could have been better used to fund chronically underfunded prisoner legal aid programs.
While the problems that an under-regulated prison phone industry pose to the poorly funded public defender program is substantial, they pale in comparison to the problems that face immigrants or suspected undocumented migrants at detention facilities. Unlike in a typical jail, at immigrant detention facilities, detainees have no right to a public defender. This means they do not have the option of having a public defender pick up the tab for phone calls. The phones provided at detention facilities may not allow detainees to leave a voicemail or receive a call back from a relative or attorney. To complicate matters, detention facilities will sometimes charge even more expensive rates than jails. In one California detention center, for example, detainees had to pay $20 for a five minute call. These outrageous charges make proving citizenship or locating documents almost impossible for low-income consumers.
Denying loved ones and incarcerated members of society the ability to keep in touch is not just hard on the emotional health of families, it also contributes to America’s enormous prison population, increases violence within the system, and transfers the financial burden of incarcerations to low-income families. When the FCC took action under its mandate to “ensure that rates for phone calls are just, reasonable, and fair for all Americans,” the FCC was well within its legal authority. But now, more action is needed to address the conditions at immigrant detention facilities. The FCC’s latest decision to not defend legal challenges to intrastate calling caps is a step backwards. If we are serious about reducing rates of recidivism and violence in prisons, correcting the prison phone industry’s market failure is a clear first step.