The FCC must not let prison phone companies profit off the backs of vulnerable Americans

by Precious Robinson, Demand Progress intern

The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) is not just an essential player in the fight for a free and open Internet. It also has the ability to protect the most vulnerable from corporate greed. For years, the FCC has been trying to set a limit for how much federal and state prison phone calls can cost per minute. Why? Because the costs associated with prison phone calls don’t just affect the 2.3 million people imprisoned, but also the lives of the 1.5 million children whose parents are in prison and the even larger number of older family members and friends who pay these costs.

In October 2015, the FCC was able to cap the rate per minute between 11 and 22 cents per minute. Previously, private companies determined rates based on local laws, ranging from 5 cents to 14 dollars per minute depending on location. Following the FCC’s decision to cap rates nationwide, however, telecom companies that specifically specialize in providing telecommunications for prisons and other incarceration centers sued the FCC for attempting to regulate the call rates. The FCC voted in early August this year to raise their rate caps between 13 to 31 cents per minute, evidently to appease these companies who claimed to be unable to turn a profit with the original rate caps.

But how can capping the rates just above the previously-proposed caps allow the two companies who control 80 percent of the prison telecom market — Securus and Global Tel*Link — to suddenly be able to turn a profit?

It’s because the costs of the calls themselves aren’t the primary factors affecting these companies’ bottom lines. A stipulation to win an exclusive contract with a prison dictates that the telecom company will not receive the majority of its profit from the rate per minute of calls — instead, the prisons do.

Prison telecom companies demand exclusive contracts to work out of prisons to ensure little to no competition. To win these exclusive contracts, prison telecom companies offer up to 60 percent of their profits to the prisons themselves in the form of “site commissions.” These site commissions are essentially a bonus to the prison for choosing the telecom company that offers the biggest cut of the profits. So rather than considering the inmates’ wallets or welfare, prisons tend to choose whoever is granting them the biggest payday.

The excessive fees and sky-high call prices that can reach up to 14 dollars per minute result from these unbalanced contracts between the prisons and their telecommunications provider, and they have an extremely negative affect on the welfare of inmates and their families. One in every three families with a family member in prison goes into debt paying phone bills accrued by keeping in contact with their incarcerated family members. The majority of the people affected by imprisonment of a loved one are low-income women.

These aren’t faceless people. These aren’t just criminals. Prison site commissions on prison phone calls affect real people who deserve to hear their families’ voices without worrying if it will break the bank. Contact with family is an essential part of rehabilitation: Studies show that consistent contact with family and friends reduces recidivism by 13 percent.

When states like New York and Rhode Island banned site commissions, the rates that inmates had to pay per minute dropped markedly. But sheriffs are fighting tooth and nail to keep site commissions. And for good reason: While prison administrations generally claim that the site commissions go to “Prisoner Welfare” funds, audits have shown that these funds are routed to unrelated costs that have nothing to do with prisoner welfare, such as police cruisers, weapons, and refrigeration equipment.

The successful banning of site commissions in several states is a promising development and other state legislatures should follow their lead. But in the absence of direct action from state policymakers, the FCC must act to protect our nation’s most vulnerable instead of corporate interests. The FCC should limit the rising costs of prison phone calls and cap the rates companies can charge. Instead of voting to raise the caps of prison phone call rates — as it did earlier this month — the FCC should reverse their hike on the call rate caps and push companies like Securus and Global Tel*Link to renegotiate their contracts with prisons to ensure that operating costs are not passed onto vulnerable citizens.

Want to make your voice heard on this important issue? Click here to sign the petition calling on the FCC to reverse the call rate hike!

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