WASHINGTON — A decade after families of prison inmates asked for action, the Federal Communications Commission agreed on Friday to limit how much companies can charge for phone calls made from behind bars.
The FCC voted 2-1 during an emotional meeting to cap interstate phone rates at 21 cents a minute for debit or prepaid calls and 25 cents a minute for collect calls. Companies wanting to set higher rates would have to file a request for a waiver and could not charge more until that waiver is granted.
“For 10 years, the families and friends of inmates have been asking the FCC to ease the burden of an inmate calling rate structure. Their wait is finally over,” said FCC acting chairwoman Mignon Clyburn, who took over the interim spot in May.
The commission’s action ends fluctuating phone rates for inmates that vary depending on the provider, the type of call and size of prison facility. The fees range from 50 cents to $3.95 to place calls, plus additional per-minute rates of anywhere from 5 cents to 89 cents. In some cases, a 15-minute call has cost $17, and numerous fees have been tacked onto call charges. Inmates’ families, many of them poor, usually are stuck with the bills. For security, inmates are not allowed to have cellphones.
Clyburn’s voice, and that of commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, cracked with emotion as they read statements about the decision. The audience, which included family members of inmates, broke out in applause after the vote.
Stephanie Joyce, an attorney who represents Dallas-based Securus Technologies Inc., one of the two largest providers of inmate phone services, said the company was withholding comment until the release of the actual order from the commission. Mark Kollar, an attorney representing American Securities, which owns the other large provider, Global Tel-Link, declined to comment.
A representative of the National Sheriffs’ Association, which was wary of FCC action before Friday’s meeting, could not be immediately reached Friday.
Limiting the rates was made easier after Clyburn, a Democrat, moved into the lead spot on the commission. The five-member panel has two vacancies. Clyburn needed only one supporting vote, which came from Rosenworcel, also a Democrat.
The petition asking the FCC to regulate inmate phone call rates was filed in 2003 after a judge dismissed a lawsuit that Martha Wright-Reed brought against a private prison company. She had struggled to keep up with phone bills while her grandson was incarcerated. The judge directed her to the commission.
Wright-Reed’s grandson, Ulandis Forte, has since been released from prison and was in the audience for Friday’s vote. He wiped away tears when the vote was taken.
Clyburn said Wright-Reed would call her then-incarcerated grandson a couple times a week, to speak with him about 15-minutes a call, and “for this minimal contact, she often paid $100 a month.”
Bethany Fraser, 36, told commissioners before the vote that her sons, ages 5 and 10, are among 2.7 million children in the U.S. with incarcerated parents. Her husband has been in a Maryland prison for 2½ years, serving 10 years for the drunken-driving death of a bicyclist.
“I would do anything and pay any amount to keep the children connected to their father,” Fraser said. “But choosing between essential needs and keeping kids connected to their parents is not a choice any parent should have to make.”
Clyburn added later that the rate regulation will help inmates stay in touch with lawyers on their cases.
“Not everyone who is charged and in prison is guilty,” she said.
The commission’s action Friday also means companies with rates of 12 cents or less per minute for debit and prepaid calls and 14 cents per minute or less for collect calls will be presumed to have “just and reasonable” rates. Companies with those rates will be protected from enforcement actions under the new rules.
Also, companies will not be allowed to charge deaf inmates extra or higher rates because they need a relay service to assist them with calls.
FCC staff and Clyburn said they consider the rates generous and arrived at them based on data companies provided during five months of public comment on a proposal to regulate rates issued in December.
As part of the new rules, companies also will have to provide specific information on their phone charges and fees, Clyburn said.
Clyburn said the FCC will initiate another regulatory process to decide what to do about intrastate rates and other issues.
Ajit Pai, the lone dissenting commissioner, said that while the FCC should have acted to limit the rates years ago, he could not vote for the proposal because it was too complex, and he was uncertain the commission could enforce it. Pai, a Republican, said he doubted it would withstand court scrutiny.
Phone service providers and some law enforcement and government officials have said the money from the phone charges helps pay for security, activities for inmates and general telephone infrastructure.
Often jail and prison operators keep a share of the phone charges, which contributed to the higher rates. The FCC and providers call the practice profit-sharing commissions, but families call them kickbacks. The FCC will not consider those commissions as costs to be figured into rates under the new rules.
Years of study have built a consensus among law enforcement, criminal justice experts and policymakers that contact with family and friends reduces inmate recidivism, which benefits public safety and cuts taxpayers’ costs for prisons and jails.
New rates are effective 90 days after publication in the Federal Register, which should occur in about a month.