FCC Finally Looking at Prison Phone Rates

I’ve written before about the unjust and short-sighted way that prisons and phone companies screw over prison inmates and their families by charging outrageous rates for phone calls to and from the prisons. The FCC is finally going to look into the issue and is considering a policy to cut those rates:

An FCC spokesman confirmed that Chairman Julius Genachowski circulated a proposal on Wednesday that would seek public comments on prison phone rules and rates.

“These issues affect the families of inmates, prisoner rehabilitation, as well as prison security,” the spokesman said…

Prisons request bids from telephone companies to provide service and require each bid to include a fee to the prison. Critics argue the system encourages exorbitant rates.

A typical interstate collect call from prison has a $3.95 connection fee and rates as high as 90 cents per minute, according to civil liberties groups. A 15-minute collect call could cost families $10 to $17 and a one-hour call once a week would cost $250 per month.

And this at a time when phone rates have bottomed out for everyone else because of cell phones and VOIP. All of this is not just unfair, it’s bad policy that hurts society by making recidivism more likely. One of the key factors in keeping inmates on the straight and narrow after getting out of prison is their ability to connect with their families and communities. If you can’t talk to them, you can’t do that. And what is going on here is nothing more than a kickback, with prisons making money by screwing the inmates — and the rest of the country too.

Those calls should be free, for crying out loud. And with VOIP, there’s no reason why they can’t be.

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  • mandyjane

    I so agree… My brother is one of those people who has spent most of his adult life in and out of prison. He costs us a fortune when he’s in prison. It’s ridiculous that they get away with charging so much for a phone call. They gouge prisoners and their families for commissary items too.

  • jamessweet

    Free might be pushing it, but yeah, they should at the very least be competitive with pay-as-you-go cell phone rates. I have also blogged about this travesty in the past. When my brother-in-law is in jail (as a homeless schizophrenic addict, he’s in and out, as you might imagine) we don’t even bother trying to keep in touch by phone, he just occasionally calls us and blurts out a short message during the collect message. And since more often than not he’s out of state during his jail stints, that means no visits from the outside. It’s absolutely absurd… but we decided not to even bother after the one time my wife pre-paid $25 and talked for like five minutes or less. It’s straight-up extortion. Sickening.

  • marcus


    Do you know where they might be accepting public comment?

  • jakc

    It’s time for this absolutely shameful practice to end. State legislatures won’t do it because of the money. Let’s urge the FCC to act

  • Crip Dyke, MQ, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    Thanks for dealing with this, Ed. This has been on my radar for almost 2 decades. It’s been pretty consistently horrible, pretty consistently everywhere since, well, before I was old enough to be doing activist work.

    For James Sweet: Pushing it? We know – know with certainty – that ties to the community reduce recidivism, which reduces court costs, incarceration medical care costs (this type of medical care is more expensive than for the same ailments outside of prison, + prison itself increases need for medical care), the cost of housing and feeding prisoners, the lost productivity to the economy of persons who might otherwise contribute and pay *some* level of tax, and much, much more.

    We gouge some families, while other families simply can’t pay. Others can pay some, but have reduced contact with an incarcerated family member.

    So to get the money from a few families, prisons put us all at heightened risk of crime and on the hook for greater costs than the friggin’ phone bills.

    Free phones for prisoners are just as certain an investment in all of us as building roads – despite the fact that some of us will never have a loved one in prison and others will never drive. If you don’t drive, you still buy groceries, etc. that are trucked to you. If you don’t have a loved one in prison, you still pay for the recidivism of those who are incarcerated.

    Free phones make sense.

  • ursamajor

    It is not just the phones but the robbery done at the company store as well. Inmates pay high rates for very small quantities of supplies from the commissary as well. Things like toothpaste or snack food (since prison food is so often vile low quality slop barely fit for being tossed in the trash.)

    Ironically, or something, the only beneficiaries are the officers who smuggle and sell contraband and those who are able to run their criminal enterprises from the inside. A few make enough money to by all the junk food and phone calls they desire.

  • We need high rates to dehumanize prisoners. If we charge less, America won’t be exceptional anymore.

  • cactuswren

    ursamajor @6: Here in Maricopa County, Arizona, there’s a special dedicated deposit-only ATM at the county jail, in the office where you go to pay someone’s bail. There’s a special charge on deposits BEFORE the deduction from the sum deposited: if you want to deposit $100 into some inmate’s personal account, $110 will be debited from your bank account. Then of the $100 you think you’re actually depositing, 40% is automatically deducted; so you’re paying an additional $10 to give your friend or relative $100 of which he or she will get only $60. A snack-size bag of chips costs $4, in the jail run by Sheriff Joe “Green Bologna” Arpaio.

  • Trickster Goddess

    For keeping better connected to their families, the prisoners should be allowed to make Skype video calls to their families. Being able to see and interact with their kids and loved ones will make a more powerful reminder of why they should go straight. It would also make it easy for them to chat with the whole family at once, instead of serial one-on-ones on a regular phone.

    And that and regular phone calls should be free for all prisoners. It is a wise and money saving investment for the taxpayers and society.

  • erichoug

    Your mistake is thinking that prison has something to do with either crime or punishment/rehabilitation, it doesn’t. With the advent of the private prison industry, the prisons are now entirely about profit and, as usual, passing the public trust into the private till. In this case it is particularly galling because we all pay a massive cost for the profits that private prisons make.

    There is absolutely no question that criminal justice and prison reform are desperately needed in this country. But, neither will ever happen for the same reason that and end to the war on drugs will never happen, the people that pay for our elections make too much money off of the current system.

    OK, that’s my Monday morning cynical rant. Back to your regular programming.

  • bradleybetts

    I wouldn’t say they should be free, but they certainly shouldn’t be any higher than average.

  • Free might be pushing it, but yeah, they should at the very least be competitive with pay-as-you-go cell phone rates.

    Nonsense. I’ve worked for one of the major telecomms, and I say there’s no reason at all they shouldn’t be free. Voice costs the network/service provider pennies on the dollar. Especially given the typically low socioeconomic status of the families of those imprisoned, there’s a damn good reason for it to be free.

    There’s no point in punishing the entire family for the actions of one individual.