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FCC Votes for Comprehensive Reform in the Prison Phone Industry

Prison Legal News, Oct. 22, 2015.

 

PRESS RELEASE

Human Rights Defense Center

For Immediate Release

October 22, 2015

FCC Votes for Comprehensive Reform in the Prison Phone Industry

Washington, DC – Today, in a long-standing proceeding to reduce the cost of phone calls made from prisons, jails and other detention facilities, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to enact reforms that will protect more than 2 million families who rely on phone calls to stay in touch during times of incarceration.

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, with the support of Chairman Tom Wheeler, continued to lead the FCC’s efforts to further regulate inmate calling service (ICS) providers’ predatory practices, which have been allowed to take economic advantage of the families of prisoners – including an estimated 2.7 million children – for far too long. Historically, the cost of prison phone calls has been extremely high – more than $1.00 per minute in many cases. Under Clyburn’s leadership as Acting Chair, the FCC took the first step in reforming the prison phone industry with a historic vote in August 2013 to cap interstate (long distance) ICS calls with interim rates of $0.25/min. for collect calls and $0.21/min. for debit and prepaid calls. Interstate rate regulation went into effect February 11, 2014.

Today, the FCC voted 3-2 in favor of further reforming the ICS industry by capping the cost of phone calls made from state and federal prisons and by creating tiered rates for calls made from jails, based on facility size. The FCC also limited or banned ancillary fees charged in addition to the exorbitant phone rates that families have been forced to pay for decades. The rate caps and other reforms also apply to immigration detention facilities.

Chairman Wheeler and Commissioners Clyburn and Rosenworcel voted in favor of comprehensive ICS reform while Commissioners Pai and O’Rielly dissented. “Today’s vote will never make up for the inaction of the past, but it is my hope that this order will finally bring relief to those who have waited for so, so long,” said Commissioner Clyburn.

After a 90-day transition period, the FCC’s order will cap rates for debit and prepaid calls from state and federal prisons at $0.11/min., while calls from jails will be capped after a six-month transition period at $0.14 to $0.22 per minute based on the size of the facility. Collect calls made from prisons and jails will initially be higher and phased into the lower rate caps over a two-year transition period.

The FCC’s order only allows three ancillary fees associated with ICS accounts: up to $3.00 for automated payments by phone or online, $5.95 for payments through a live agent and $2.00 to receive a paper bill. The FCC further banned flat-rate calling and “discouraged” the payment of commission kickbacks by ICS providers to detention facilities. The FCC made clear that they hope the states will also take steps to seek lower rates with no ancillary fees when they bid out new phone contracts. The FCC action sets a ceiling, not a floor for prison and jail phone rates.

“We owe heartfelt thanks to Commissioner Clyburn for recognizing the predatory practices of ICS providers and for her tireless leadership to protect this very marginalized consumer group,” said HRDC executive director Paul Wright. “Prisoners’ families represent some of our poorest citizens and they should not be forced to subsidize prisons and jails that profit from commission kickbacks from ICS providers in order to speak with their incarcerated loved ones.”

“As noted by Commissioner Clyburn in her comments during today’s FCC vote, HRDC has been working on this issue for over two decades, and we won’t stop now,” said Wright. “Although the FCC’s order does not ban kickbacks, capping ICS rates will limit the artificially high rates that have became commonplace under commission-based contracts,” Wright added. “While today’s action is a welcome first step, HRDC continues to advocate for a $0.05/min. rate cap for all prison and jail phone calls, a ban on all kickback payments and ancillary fees, and greater transparency in the ICS industry.”

 

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The Human Rights Defense Center, founded in 1990 and based in Lake Worth, Florida, is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human rights in U.S. detention facilities. HRDC publishes Prison Legal News (PLN), a monthly magazine that includes reports, reviews and analysis of court rulings and news related to prisoners’ rights and criminal justice issues. PLN has around 9,000 subscribers nationwide and operates a website (www.prisonlegalnews.org) that includes a comprehensive database of prison and jail-related articles, news reports, court rulings, verdicts, settlements and related documents.

HRDC is a co-founder and coordinator of the national Campaign for Prison Phone Justice (www.phonejustice.org), in addition to MAG-Net, a project of the Center for Media Justice, and Working Narratives.

For further information, please contact:

 

Paul Wright, Executive Director

Human Rights Defense Center

(802) 275-8594

pwright@prisonlegalnews.org

 

Alex Friedmann, Associate Director

Human Rights Defense Center

(615) 495-6568

afriedmann@prisonlegalnews.org

 

Carrie Wilkinson, Prison Phone Justice Director

Human Rights Defense Center

(206) 604-6145

cwilkinson@humanrightsdefensecenter.org