FCC Tackles Excessive Costs for Prison Phone Calls

By: Katie McAuliffe  

While much of America zeros in on policing tactics in the wake of George Floyd’s death, there are many other aspects of our criminal justice system that require reform. Exorbitant rates and fees on phone calls to loved ones in prison is an issue the Federal Communications Commission has targeted to no avail in recent years. Its most recent order capping some of these rates and fees will hopefully prove successful, but it also shines a light on the varying regulatory structures at play. 

The federal government can’t solve all our problems. Many of the problems we turn to the federal government to solve, like police reform, actually need to be taken on at the state and local level. Lack of awareness of local policies can allow governments to get away with practices no one would agree with – like the fact that while the cost of calling in the competitive marketplace is nearing zero, calls from state prisons and local jails can be as high as $25 for a 15-minute call. 

Phone services in jails and prisons are by and large government instituted monopolies; the correctional institution chooses a single operator to offer services, and the incarcerated population has to pay whatever rate they choose to charge.  

Because these are true monopolistic phone services that do not benefit from the price-cutting effects of competition, regulators step in to cap prices. The capped price, or highest price allowed, will invariably be the price charged in a government sanctioned monopoly scenario. The current price caps for interstate calls from prisons, set by the FCC in 2013, are $0.21 per minute for debit and prepaid calls, and $0.25 per minute for collect calls. 

In its August meeting, the FCC will vote on whether to cut the interstate call rate cap to $0.14 per minute from prison and $0.16 per minute from jails, for debit, prepaid, and collect calls, as well as vote on a cap for international call rates from prison; there is currently no cap. 

The D.C. Circuit has twice rejected the FCC’s attempts to regulate these rates and fees. The court most recently rejected 2015 efforts by the FCC to reform telephone service pricing for the incarcerated because those efforts attempted to regulate intrastate rates. With the new order, the Commission will cap interstate and international fees only and respond to the court’s remand on ancillary charges, aka added fees. These extra charges are stacked on top of per-minute charges to create exorbitantly expensive calls. Because these fees cannot be broken into interstate and intrastate categories, the FCC has determined it does have jurisdiction over added fees and all inmate calling services must comply with fee caps and other restrictions. 

It is fortunate that the FCC is looking at not just the per minute call rate, but also the added fees. Without targeting both of these for reform inmates and their families would still suffer high costs to stay in contact with loved ones. These fees are not trivial and “can increase the cost of families staying in touch … by as much as 40%.” 

However, about 92% of calls out of prisons and jails are intrastate, calls that begin and end within the state, and are therefore under state and/or local jurisdiction, just like police precincts, meaning that the federal government and FCC have no jurisdiction to regulate intrastate calls unless Congress steps in and clarifies this authority under the Communications Act.  

While some states have addressed excessive rates, many jails are run by cities and counties and also set their own rates.  As of 2018, the average cost of an in-state phone call in an Arkansas jail, the most expensive of the states, is $14.49, but with additional fees a 15-minute call can soar to nearly $25. Meanwhile, the cost of a 15-minute call from an Arkansas state prison is $3.34. 

While the FCC cannot currently address calls within the states, Chairman Pai implored the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners to take action: 

“FCC staff analysis has revealed that providers of inmate calling services are charging egregiously high intrastate rates across the country. Intrastate rates for debit or prepaid calls substantially exceed interstate rates in 45 states. Thirty-three states allow rates that are at least double the current federal cap, and 27 states allow excessive “first-minute” charges up to 26 times that of the first minute of an interstate call. Here are some numbers: For an interstate call, the first-minute charge may not exceed 25 cents today, but for an intrastate call, first-minute charges may range from $1.65 to $6.50. Indeed, Commission staff have identified instances in which a 15-minute intrastate debit or prepaid call costs as much as $24.80—almost seven times more than the maximum $3.15 that an interstate call of the same duration would cost.” 

Even if the FCC Order succeeds, there remains more to be done at the state and local level. State’s must address the rates and fees for in-state calls in their prisons, and cities and counties must address the in-state rates and fees from their jails. Some cities and states have made progress, New York City made calls to and from jails free in 2018, and San Francisco did the same in 2019. There is legislation pending in Massachusetts and Connecticut.  

Hopefully the FCC’s order will be successful this time.  It is well known that remaining connected with family, especially through visits and calls, decreases recidivism. The Minnesota Department of Corrections, for example, found that people who received visitors while in prison have a five-year recidivism rate that’s 25% lower than those who don’t. The goal is rehabilitation, not a revolving door. Excessive rates and fees are clearly counterproductive. 

Photo Credit: Jason Farrar