The federal government is not known for being particularly romantic, but this Valentine's Day thousands of families have an unusual entity to be thankful for: The Federal Communications Commission. That's because the FCC's new regulation to cap the charges for the most expensive interstate calls home from prison -- effective yesterday, Feb. 11 -- will prevent families from having to choose between wishing an incarcerated loved one a happy Valentine's Day and putting food on the table.
With rates as high as $1 per minute charged to a market that is literally captive, the prison and jail phone industry was in dire need of regulation when the FCC stepped in. This is not a normal market by any stretch of the imagination. Phone companies secure exclusive contracts with prison and jail systems in exchange for kicking back a significant share of the call profits to the correctional facilities, leaving the poorest families in the nation to foot astronomical bills.
A handful of states have led the way in bringing down these charges: For example, in 2007 New York state banned prison phone profit kickbacks and required contracts to be based on the lowest cost to the consumer. That brought the cost of a 15-minute call from prison via industry giant Global Tel*Link down to $0.72. Families in Delaware, by contrast, are out of luck because there the exact same company charges $10.70 for a 15-minute call from a loved one in prison. In essence, unregulated prison and jail call charges in states like Delaware function as a stealth tax on the families that can least afford to pay.
State and FCC action to regulate the broken prison and jail phone industry will also help to reduce our nation's abysmal recidivism rates. Social science research is clear that allowing people who are involved in the justice system to maintain family and community ties helps them succeed later on. And it's as efficient as it is common-sense. As the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision recently pointed out to the FCC, "...the Call Home Program is among the most cost-effective family reunification options" offered in the New York prison system.
The FCC's historic ruling to rein in the predatory prison phone industry comes after 10 years of advocacy calling for relief from families' expensive phone bills, but the phone corporations are already pushing back to protect their windfall profits. The biggest players in this industry have filed suit against the FCC's ruling, and a federal court has put critical regulations on hold that would require more industry transparency and prohibit exorbitant fees. Meanwhile, the FCC's ruling doesn't apply to in-state calls, which constitute 80 percent of all calls from prisons and jails. And on top of all that, emerging video technology is creating more opportunities for corporate price gouging.
But the fight for fair phone charges is one that the families of the 12 million people cycling through jails each year can't afford to lose. Interstate rate regulation was a huge step forward that must now be defended in court, and the FCC and state and local governments need to keep going in order to protect all families, regardless of whether their loved ones are incarcerated in the same state or elsewhere. Our movement is strong, and we're committed to ensuring that all parents, partners, and kids can afford to affirm their love for one another over the phone next Valentine's Day.
Leah Sakala is a policy analyst at the Prison Policy Initiative, and Peter Wagner is Executive Director. They are co-authors of the report "Please Deposit All of Your Money: Kickbacks, Rates, and Hidden Fees in the Jail Phone Industry."