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PLN/HRDC mentioned in article on FCC prison phone order

Intelligencer Journal, Sept. 14, 2013.
PLN/HRDC mentioned in article on FCC prison phone order - Intelligencer Journal 2013

Pa. inmates gouged for years on jailhouse calls

Posted: 09/14/13, 5:31 PM EDT |

WOULD YOU pay $9.35 to make a 15-minute out-of-state phone call?

That’s what it costs inmates at Pennsylvania state prisons to make collect calls to friends, family members or their lawyers. Under a deal with states, telephone companies for years have charged inmates exorbitant rates, then kicked back part of the money to the prisons in the form of “commissions.”

That changed last month when the Federal Communications Commission voted 2-1 to cap fees charged to inmates for out-of-state calls.

The new fee stands at 25 cents per minute for collect calls — or $4 per 15 minutes, plus monitoring costs. The new rate, which will not go into effect until next year, applies to county prisons as well.

Lancaster County Prison currently charges inmates $9.30 for out-of-state phone calls. That includes a $3 surcharge and 45 cents per minute up to the maximum of 15 minutes. The surcharge covers the cost of monitoring the calls. Lancaster County has used the commissions to pay for prisoner welfare programs at the county prison. (Local calls cost inmates $1.75 for 15 minutes, including a $1.15 surcharge.)

The FCC acted after an investigation by the Human Rights Defense Center found that some states were gouging inmates by charging up to $17.14 for a 15-minute out-of-state call.

This is big business for phone service providers. Inmate phone services are a $1.2 billion industry, according to a Standard and Poor report issued in April of this year.

ACCORDING TO the Prison Legal News, prisons in 40 states received $100 million in phone company kickbacks last year alone. Pennsylvania prisons received an average of $7.2 million in commissions annually between 2009 and 2011.

The deal essentially was the cost of doing business. Phone-service providers and prison authorities argued that because the calls had to be monitored and analyzed, higher costs were necessary.

But there was another provision. In order to obtain the contracts, phone-service providers agreed to offer commissions. Those commissions typically amounted to 45 percent or more.

Therefore, states and counties benefited when inmates made out-of-state calls. State prison commissions in Pennsylvania went directly into the state’s general fund.

Prisoners’ rights groups argued that the arrangements and excessive charges between phone companies and states violated prisoners’ First Amendment rights — a claim the courts rejected.

But the FCC, in its 2-1 vote, rightly ruled that the prisons cannot stick inmates with excessive bills to in order to enhance their own bottom line. Henceforth, phone charges must be based on the actual cost of the call plus the cost of oversight by the prison staff.

SOCIETY ALSO benefits from the change. The excessive phone call costs are a burden on poor families whose relatives are in jail. Studies have shown that prisoners who stay in touch with their families are far less likely to commit future crimes and that children who retain contact with an incarcerated parent are less likely to skip school or become involved in drugs or gangs.

As well-intentioned as some commission-funded programs may be, forcing inmates’ families to pay predatory charges to help cover the cost of those programs is wrong.

— (Lancaster) Intelligencer Journal

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