Prison Phone Rate Reforms an Important Part of Administration’s Re-entry Efforts

Categories: Criminal Justice, News

The White House on Monday unveiled new measures to ease the re-entry process for formerly incarcerated people, an announcement that marks a continuation of the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce incarceration’s collateral effects. One of those efforts is the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) recent vote on a proposal to cap exorbitant prison calling rates and fees for in-state calls.

“Studies have consistently shown that inmates who maintain contact with their families experience better outcomes and are less likely to return to prison after they are released,” the White House’s announcement noted on Monday. “Reduced phone rates will make calls significantly more affordable for inmates and their families, including children of incarcerated parents, who often live in poverty and were at times charged $14 per minute phone rates.”

Ahead of the FCC vote, a coalition of 26 civil and human rights groups sent a letter to the FCC urging the agency to cap the rates and fees, saying that “Maintaining the bonds of a family and support network is an effective way to reduce recidivism among incarcerated people, which in turn reduces the cost of the criminal justice system.”

That wasn’t the first time this year that a broad coalition came together to call for reforms. In January, civil rights, faith, labor, media justice, and other groups from around the country wrote to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler on the need for more reforms to lower predatory prison phone rates.

The letter urged the FCC to eliminate site commission payments, which can drive up rates. It also called for backstopping rates with local caps reflective of competitive rates outside prisons, jails, and detention facilities – especially since the majority of calls to and from those facilities are local.

In February 2014, after more than a decade of advocacy, several prison phone rate reforms went into effect, including a 25-cents-per-minute cap on interstate collect calls. The FCC also banned prison phone-service providers from charging extra fees to connect a call or to use a calling card.

These reforms are particularly important to the civil rights community because high prison phone rates place an unfair financial burden not only on prisoners, but also on their families and loved ones. According to an October 2013 report by The Leadership Conference Education Fund, in-person visits are often too expensive for the families of prisoners who may be incarcerated hundreds of miles away, leaving phone calls as “the most reliable and practical method of maintaining relationships with parents, children, spouses, siblings, and friends.”