FCC Price Cap on Inmate Phone Calls Stalled, Talk Still Not Cheap

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on April 05, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Inmates and their families have to pay to communicate, and some say the costs are so high and outrageous that they constitute a tax on the poor. Last year, in October, the Federal Communications Commission capped the costs of calling inmates, but the International Business Times reports that there are setbacks.

The setbacks reveal a lot about what was wrong with the jail and prison communication system to begin with. Mignon Clyburn, an FCC commissioner who led the charge for reform, has called the prison phone industry the "most egregious case of market failure" she has seen in her career. Here's why.

Rate Cap Flap

Despite the new rates under the approved cap, which were to go into effect last month, the cost of calling inmates has not gone down. First, the FCC's move was challenged by Securus Technologies and Global Tel Link, two companies making a great deal of money connecting inmates and the outside world.

Now, some states have joined the private companies in their suit against the feds. Oklahoma, for example, says it will lose $3 million a year in commission payments on the calls if there is a cap. The commissions are a way that localities profit from deals with the communications companies, skimming a percentage of the phone call cost and putting it back in local pockets.

The money is meant to go to inmate welfare funds, but it often goes to other things, like tasers and cop cars. Paul Wright of the Human Rights Defense Center, says the commissions that these companies pay counties are simply "kickbacks" that artificially inflate prices for poor families and get spent with little to no oversight or auditing. "It's a total slush fund," Wright says. "A boondoggle of corruption."

The Price of Silence

Struggling families, already taxed by the fact that one member of the clan is incarcerated, often cannot afford to pay to communicate. This has a negative effect on relatives outside of jail or prison, particularly children.

"Studies have consistently shown that communication with family members lowers the rates of inmate recidivism," writes Eric Markowitz for the International Business Times. "But calls are often too expensive for lower-income people, which make up the vast majority of those who are incarcerated."

Markowitz has covered the cost of calling the incarcerated extensively and recently spoke to a mother from Mississippi locked up in Florida. She said, "There's so much stress. People are heartbroken. People miss their kids. They can't talk to them. People go crazy inside."

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