FCC To Rule On Capping Telephone Fees Charged By Outside Vendors To Inmates

By Darren Smith

PrisonCellOne matter that has been for years a hot button issue is how telephone service vendors have entered into contract with prisons and jails in the various states. County jails and state prisons were enticed on the promise of lowering costs to the government agency in exchange for having the liberty to place the burden of the cost onto inmates and those electing to make calls.

Over the years several vendors have clearly taken advantage of the system, and callers who have no other choices if they wish to speak with their attorney, family, or friends.

Now, the FCC is positioned to place restrictions on the tolls charged. A vote is scheduled for October 22nd.


Telephone calls for inmates has changed greatly in the past thirty years. Anecdotally, one of my first tasks assigned to me as a sixteen year old cadet with the sheriff’s office was to provide inmates with phone calls during the evening. It was a rudimentary system but it seemed to work. I would sit in a chair outside the bars and each inmate would walk up to make his call. He gave me the phone number (it needed to be local or collect). I wrote down the number on a clipboard, dialed the number, then handed him the receiver. After his time was up he handed it back to me and the next person came forward. We had an extra line available so it did not cost the sheriff any extra and my labor cost was a bargain I can assure you.

Eventually with new facilities phone service went in where inmates could make collect calls from cell blocks and this led to the system of having vendors provide the switching and billing. It was a much more elaborate arrangement for certain, as calls could be monitored (if not attorney-client) and certain numbers could be blocked out if harassment took place. The phones also could be switched off as punishment if the inmates became unruly, losing a privilege they certainly did not want removed. Another advantage was the system freed up staff to perform other duties.

FCC-Seal_svgUnfortunately with some vendors greed later took hold and rather than charge a reasonable fee for their service, which of course they need to make money with their investment, it came to take advantage of others. It is especially concerning in that most inmates have little money and they depend on outsiders to provide them with money for commissary and phone calls, or they might be billed directly themselves. Either way with lack of choice, and a virtual monopoly, the vendors surely created for themselves a sweetheart deal.

Ars Technica reports that in one case a pro-bono attorney was forced to pay fourteen dollars a minute to speak with an incarcerated client. This is truly disturbing. A person could speak on a satellite telephone from the middle of the Pacific for much less than that. Some companies charged inmates $9.50 to open an account $4.75 to add money and $2.99 for a monthly maintenance feel. Families were forced to pay in many cases $400 to $500 dollars per month just to speak with a loved one.

Aside from the obvious humanity in allowing individuals to speak with those close to them, studies have shown that inmates having regular contacts with friends and loved ones reduces recidivism, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn scheduled a speech last week to address this problem, a transcript of which follows:

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn
Big Tent Meeting
September 25, 2015

“Breaking the Cycle of Prison Poverty One Phone Call at a Time”
-As Prepared for Delivery-

Good morning. Thank you, Christine [Leonard] for that gracious introduction. It is heartwarming to see such a diverse group of people assembled and united to tackle criminal justice reform. We need every tool at our disposal to break the vicious cycle of incarceration and its reverberating impact on our communities.

During my time today, I want to highlight an issue on which we can work together: reducing the egregiously high cost of calls from jails and prisons — rates so high that it puts connectivity at risk for too many, particularly our impoverished families. If the ability to keep in touch is out of reach for the imprisoned, then fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and sons and daughters will return to their communities as strangers, unable to re-assimilate — and, for 75% of those released, it no doubt contributes to them
being rearrested and sent back to prison within five years, continuing the vicious cycle of incarceration and ensuring that these communities remain impoverished.

But with your help, we can fix this. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and, with recidivism rates of 75%, this trend is likely to continue. We also have the unfortunate distinction of boasting the highest child poverty rate among 35 industrialized countries. Nearly 15 million of our children are living below the poverty level, and according to one study, people who experienced poverty at any point during the childhood were three times more likely to be poor at age 30 compared those who were never poor as children. These are related vicious cycles, and the alarming increase of children with incarcerated parents has created a new cycle of poverty where it can be afforded the least. African Americans represent 12.3% of the US population but account for nearly 44% of the prison population. According to one study, if these trends continue, one in every three to four African American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime.

Between 1980-2010, the United States saw a 300% increase in the incarcerated population – with the number of women incarcerated growing by nearly 600% during the same time period. Ending Child Poverty Now, What these statistics do not highlight is the devastating economic impact on our communities and the next generation and the next. According to reputable studies, 54% of all inmates are parents with minor children. This translates into approximately 2.7 million of our most valuable resources with at least one parent incarcerated4 and nearly 10 million children who have had a parent behind bars. Approximately half of all children with an incarcerated parent are under 10 years old, and 20% are under the age of four. That is one in every 28 children, and one in nine African American children with an incarcerated parent.7 Twenty-five years ago, that ratio was just one in 125.

Are you surprised to hear that 40% of state prisoners reported growing up in a household that received public assistance? What is more, half of imprisoned parents were the primary wage-earners for their families. With that support gone, child poverty rates rise as well as that cycle of prison and poverty. And, when the parent is released, their annual earning power plummets by approximately 40 percent.9
The magnitude of this impact and cycle of prison and poverty for these children and the generation to follow cannot be overstated. I submit to you, that if there were any other issue where 2.7 million children were impacted, we would be witnessing a national outrage of gigantic proportions. To put this in perspective, the number of children with an incarcerated parent is more than twice the number of children that have juvenile diabetes (1.25 million children according to the American Diabetes Association)10 and more than the number of children diagnosed with autism.

Those 2.7 million children face a host of unique challenges. One study found that 23% of children with a father that had been incarcerated had been expelled or suspended from school compared to 4% of children whose fathers were not jailed. While the impact on each child is different, it is clear that parental incarceration has a unique combination of trauma, shame, and stigma and is recognized as an adverse
childhood experience (ACE). Children with one or more ACE face increased risks of health problems such depression, suicide attempts, and substance abuse.

Those 2.7 million children are more likely to be displaced from their remaining parent, living with grandparents, or for too many, entering foster care, particularly when the mothers are the incarcerated.
One study found that the increase in female imprisonment resulted in a 30% increase in foster care caseloads between 1985 and 2000. While the separation is often just as painful as other forms of parental loss, the stigma, ambiguity, and lack of social support and compassion that accompanies prison make it all more difficult. And while those of us in this room may be unable to tackle all of the dimensions that contribute to this cycle, we can and we must see to it that those children and their families, friends and legal counsel maintain contact through an affordable inmate calling rate regime that may at least ease the pain of this loss. Not surprisingly, children who continue to stay in touch with their parent in prison exhibit fewer disruptive and anxious behaviors. Yet, according to one study, only 38% of inmates reported “at least” monthly phone calls with their children. No one disputes studies that consistently show that meaningful communication beyond prison walls helps to promote rehabilitation and reduce recidivism. Meanwhile 700,000 inmates are released every year and, sadly, as I mentioned before, the Department of Justice reports that nearly 75% will be back within five years.

We should do all in our power to promote connectivity with the incarcerated, and that begins with you actively challenging the current system of rates that are so high that it actively discourages communication because families and friends cannot afford to keep in touch. Just how high are these rates? A pro bono attorney paid $14 a minute to speak to an incarcerated client. Families write explaining how they are making extraordinary sacrifices by paying $400-$500 a month to hear their loved one’s voice. The endless
array of new and increasing fees can add nearly 40% to costs— fees as high as $9.50 to open a new account, $4.75 to add money to an account, and $2.99 a month for the account maintenance fee. These rates and fees would be difficult for any family to bear, but if you were already struggling to stay afloat, you are now foregoing basic necessities like food and medicine just to make a phone call. No family should be forced to make this choice.

Here we have a clear case of market failure, and our most vulnerable families are being preyed on. Providers have a monopoly in those facilities, and these jails and prisons often share in the company’s profits. Payments as high as 96% of gross revenues are often kicked back to the facility and can be used for anything from blankets and inmate welfare to area roads and general welfare funds. As Acting Chairwoman, I saw that the agency took its first real step in 2013 with caps on interstate rates (for calls that cross state lines) at 21 cents a minute. This move 12 Christopher Wildeman & Bruce Western, incarceration in Fragile Families, finally answered a decade-old petition from a grandmother who wanted to affordably stay in touch with her grandson. And if you needed more proof that high rates are discouraging connectivity: after we lowered interstate rates, long distance call volumes increasing 70% in some
facilities. What is also important is that security protocols have not been compromised. But 85% of calls from correctional facilities are made within a state. While a few states, such as New York, New Jersey and Ohio, have reformed and have rates of four to five cents a minute with advanced security features and without kick-backs, nearly 80% of states have failed to act.

The FCC is poised to enact permanent reforms to reduce all rates and charges in a manner that ensures robust security features but makes rates affordable. Still, I need your help. The FCC has express authority from Congress to reform “intrastate” and “interstate” calls and “ancillary services” for “inmate calling services.” But the status quo is good for certain providers and facilities. Reform efforts are being met with powerful resistance, and the quest for just and reasonable rates for these families, friends, and
legal representatives will not come easy.

I need your help in getting the word to lawmakers and those who elect them at the federal and state levels about the egregious nature of the cost of phone calls from jails and prisons, how these costs are further bankrupting families and communities, and why they should support the FCC’s efforts to reform this regime. What we are proposing will neither compromise those security protocols that must be in place nor
justify the threat of some facilities that promise to eliminate the ability for inmates to make calls all together if we lower rates. I cannot, nor can the FCC, tackle this alone. We need you, we need sheriffs, we need lawmakers, and we need states to enact further reforms to bring truly affordable rates to everyone.
We need to affirm to every citizen how increasing connectivity benefits our society, that affordable rates will ultimately result in less crime and lower recidivism, and that reasonable reforms will give our children and their communities a chance at a brighter future. Let us do our part in reversing the cycle of prison, poverty, and recidivism. Each of us can do so, one phone call at a time.

Thank you.

Aside from a few political liberties Commissioner Clyburn took the speech does bring up many solid points describing the shortcomings of the status quo with regard to inmates. It does in my view make a compelling case for reform.

Proposed for the October 22nd meeting and vote, the following reforms are offered:

Key Reforms

 Establishes caps on all inmate calling rates

  • These new caps reduce the average rates for the vast majority of inmate calls substantially,
    from $2.96 to no more than $1.65 for a 15-minute intrastate call, and from $3.15 to no more
    than $1.65 for a 15-minute interstate call.
  • Tiered rate structure accommodates the higher relative costs faced by jails (especially small
    jails) as opposed to state and federal prisons. The rate caps are as follows:

      • 11 cents/minute for debit/prepaid calls, in state or federal prisons.

  • 14 cents/minute for debit/prepaid calls in jails with 1,000 or more inmates.
  • 16 cents /minute for debit/prepaid calls in jails with 350-999 inmates.
  • 22 cents /minute for debit/prepaid calls in jails of up to 349 inmates.
  • Rates for collect calls are slightly higher in the first year and will be phased down to these caps after a two-year transition period.
  • Approximately 71% of inmates reside in state or federal prisons.
  • Approximately 85% of inmates reside in institutions with populations exceeding 1,000.
  • With the exception of the rate for small jails, these rates are substantially lower than the current 21 cents/minute interim cap on interstate rates.
  • The rate caps permit recovery for robust security measures, as reflected in costs that ICS
    providers filed with the Commission.

Caps or bans burdensome and needless ancillary service charges, which can add nearly 40% to the cost of a single call

  • Limit and cap ancillary service charges to the following list of permitted charges:

      • Automated payment by phone or website: $3.

  • Payment through a live agent: $5.95.
  • Paper bill fee: $2.
  • Third-party financial transaction fees, such as fees charged by MoneyGram or Western Union, may be passed through with no mark-up.
  • All other ancillary service charges are prohibited.
  • Mandatory taxes and regulatory fees may be passed through with no mark-up.

    • Discourages “site commission” payments by providers to institutions
  • Defines the term “site commission” broadly as payments in money or services from inmate calling service providers to correctional institutions or government agencies.
  • Excludes the cost of site commissions in establishing the rate caps and strongly discourages the use of site commissions.
  • Continues to monitor the effect of site commissions on rates but does not restrict ICS providers’ sharing or profits if such payments fit within the rate caps.

Bans flat-rate calling

  • Disallows providers from imposing so-called “flat-rate calling,” that is, a flat rate for a call up
    to 15 minutes regardless of actual call duration.
  • Clarifies that this practice violates statutory mandates requiring that rates be just, reasonable, and fair, and penalizes callers who stay on the phone less than 15 minutes.

Ensures access for people with disabilities

    • Requires providers to offer discounted rates for telephone relay service (TRS) calls for inmates with communications disabilities.
    • Reminds correctional institutions of their obligation to make TRS available to people with communications disabilities.
    • Encourages jails and prisons to allow commonly used forms of TRS and requires them to report service quality issues.

Transition Period

        • Requires rate caps, site commission and ancillary service charge reforms to go into effect 90
          days from the effective date of the Order.
        • Ongoing Review and Oversight
        • Commits to reevaluate impact of reforms and rates in two years to determine if adjustments need to be made.
        • Requires annual reporting and certification by ICS providers, to ensure compliance and enable monitoring of developments

Third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking:

        • Seeks further comment on promoting competition in inmate calling services without the need for additional regulation
        • Video visitation and other advanced inmate communications services
        • Recurring Mandatory Data Collection

While I am not a person who favors over-regulation by government agencies, I believe this is an important step to reign in some rather glaring abuses. The proposal also demonstrates the problem of how de facto monopolies can punish consumers and other stakeholders.

It is my opinion also that fines, losses of freedom, and such should be levied by the courts with regard to prisoners. It is likely that having somewhat of a shield to allow such burdensome telephone charges, specifically in that the public and politicians mostly don’t care about prisoners paying high fees since they deserve whatever punishment they get regardless of form, that it actually may have fostered an environment leading to an opportunity to extract as much money as possible by telephone vendors–with little oversight or attention.

I believe it is likely the FCC will adopt these recommendations. Those having concern about the rising “prison industrial complex” in the United States might then see in this a small victory.

By Darren Smith


Ars Techinica
Federal Communications Commission (speech)
Federal Communications Commission (fact sheet)

The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.

32 thoughts on “FCC To Rule On Capping Telephone Fees Charged By Outside Vendors To Inmates”

  1. Still denying the complicity of govt. bureaucrats who run most jails. Denser than London fog.

  2. Annie, We have revived debtor’s prison, so flogging may not be far behind.

  3. There is no cruel and unusual punishment in putting these people inside an impenetrable fence or on a deserted island and compelling them to fend for themselves. Throw some bread and water over the fence once a week.

    Treating prisoners like kings is ridiculous.

    Penalties for crimes must be prohibitive.

    The Lincoln assassination conspirators, not the assassin but the conspirators, were dead within 4 months.

    It takes the judicial branch 4 months to put on its silly, effeminate robes. Most of its members should be putting on prison garb for corruption and treason, especially those of the Extreme Court.

    Coddling criminals happens on the border and in prisons.

    Bill Cosby and Hillary Clinton haven’t been thrown in jail yet.

    A nation doesn’t need adversaries to respect it, it needs enemies and criminals to fear it.

    Who the hell is running this place?

  4. Some things should be in the realm of the private sector. Some things should be in the realm of the government of the society. Prisons and the courts along with everything relative is part of the society’s laws and therefore should be administered through the government.

    This is simply allowing crooks to feast on those who have no defense. It may have been a bad choice that got the individual into prison but it is the responsibility of the community to deal with it, not profit from it.

    Those that believe that everything should be free enterprise are no more correct than those that believe that everything should be socialized and vise versa. There are so many successful paradigms in the world. Why does the US continue to try and reinvent the wheel, failing at every turn. Statistics don’t lie.

  5. Privatized prisons and “fee collection” agencies. Court appointed attorney fees. Unreasonable bail for poor and low income citizens. Time to end all this. We can do so much better.

  6. Thanks to Paul CS for his intellectual honesty, that was nice.

    “… this is a pure and simple monopoly by the prison to make extra money. Makes no difference whether the prison is private or public. Think robber barons.”

  7. A local family friend/French cafe owner was sentenced for ‘not having his immigration papers in order’. He and his wife had purchased a small restaurant 2 yrs earlier receiving rave reviews twice in local newspaper but none of that mattered.
    The judge’s hands were tied– he told the court, and the defense wept as ICE agents removed our friend in chains to a mandatory 4 months to then be transferred for deportation ‘eventually’ in an ‘out-of-state’ federal detention center that was crammed to the rafters. Because his wife and baby were 6 hours drive north we acted as telephone liaison on their behalf. We accepted each weekly collect call but got no bill for the first month, but in the middle of the 2nd month we received billing for first 5 phone calls via a prison phone company located in Irving Texas. I nearly fainted. The bill was for almost $3000.00 !!
    They were charging users $17+ first minute & about $14 /minute thereafter. I immediately called the Irving company– eventually after several phone calls they reduced it to a bit under $300. !! ~~ but my argument was how do families manage to pay for what seemed extortive fees. The female agent I spoke with explained that “those families just throw their phones away”. !! As if that dealt with the issue. I also requested a hearing on this matter.
    Our state PUC rejected our complaints saying they had nothing to do with out of state telephone charges. Told me to contact FCC about interstate telephone fees. We are in NM and our detainee friend was held in an ICE facility in Texas!
    It was an awful EYE OPENING experience. I contacted various networks of families who were told they had to fight this ‘state by state’. A few years later I learned that NYState legislature actually instituted a fairer policy and thereby set a precedent. But that was YEARS ago. This has been going on since Bush administration allowed privatization of prisons & ‘prison services’.
    Imagine all the heart ache and deprivation such charges imposed for more than a DECADE nationally.?! Glad to know that it is FINALLY being dealt with.

  8. In this case, people who are socialists and decrying capitalism are being intellectually dishonest[socialists strong point] by failing to recognize the complicity of govt. jailers.

    1. Nick – this is a pure and simple monopoly by the prison to make extra money. Makes no difference whether the prison is private or public. Think robber barons.

  9. I have gotten two calls from prison from former students. It was very pricey. I asked them to write after that. 🙂 This has been a rip-off for a lot of years and they are now getting around to it. I have always felt that the least they could do is set up the calling at cost (including the guard, excluding the wiretapping).

  10. Well it is all the government’s fault as Davidm explained. Free enterprise and technology are the answers to everything. Except the weasels out there like the guy who bumped up a pharmaceutical 5000%. It is human nature to extract as much as one can from any and all situations. If someone can get ten times what it costs for anything they will go for it. No one, including everyone on this blog is any different.

    To some degree open commerce and competition will keep quality high and prices low. Until the predominant law of capitalism overrides the system, ‘What the market will bear.’ The scum that were charging $14 a minute had nothing going on in their minds other than trying to figure out how to get $16 a minute. They would attribute the harm they were doing to whatever their weasely minds could come up with.

    Over all for a society to evolve and flourish it needs societal oversight. There should be punishment for this sort of activity, whether it be in very heavy fines or jail time.

    Ironically the act of stealing from those who can do nothing about it teaches those inside the rules for when they get out. Most criminals will tell you that they learned the tricks of the trade in the slammer. This sort of activity encourages criminals to continue with their criminal behavior. The boys in the government who figured this out and their pals that profited should be sharing a cell.

  11. Darren

    Thanks for posting this. It is a breath of fresh air to see the government taking steps to correct a problem like this.

    Taking a step back, the whole private prison industry creates a perverse economic incentive to increase incarceration rates. We already have the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world. That is not a good thing.

  12. When humans are involved in allowing such goughing then the humans are taking a percentage. So, this means those who run the prisons should be inmates in the prisons, not guardians. Follow the money. Call the Warden by a name which fits. Warden Crook.

  13. Thanks for this article. This is an important issue.

    Related to what DavidM posted, are the costs and fees associated with private collection agencies that manage municipal fines. Here’s an excellent piece on that by John Oliver.

  14. Davidm2575:
    Personal cell phones are not allowed in jails/prisons, because the institutions need to have the capacity to monitor non-attorney phone calls.

    1. Lou wrote: “Personal cell phones are not allowed in jails/prisons, because the institutions need to have the capacity to monitor non-attorney phone calls.”

      The technology for monitoring cell phone conversations has existed for many years now.

  15. Corporations tend to seek and exploit the ability to gouge the customer. When a regulator fails to act in a captive market, these inhuman and morally repugnant practices emerge.

  16. The head of the FCC needs to be fired if he/she does not do something to cure this problem. If there is some Board voting on it then they need to be immediately replaced if they do not do something to cure this problem. If these people are not removed then we need to start removing our Congressmen/women. The inmates are running the asylum. The asylum is the US of A. The Koch Brothers are in charge. This is why God made rifles.

  17. I am not a fan of government regulation either, but the problem here is that there is a technological monopoly. If the monopoly stays in place, then you have to regulate to keep them from price gouging.

    Of course, there are several other solutions nobody talks about. One is to allow prisoners access to their own personal cell phones. Another is to provide a free VOIP service like SKYPE where SKYPE to SKYPE calls are free, and SKYPE to landlines is very affordable. Yet another option is for the prison to install a few phone line plans that allow unlimited free calls to the US and Canada. Such is not expensive at all, usually less than $20 per line.

    I suspect without evidence that cronyism is involved in providing companies like SecureUS a monopoly that others have to deal with. With the very low cost of telecommunications these days, it makes no sense for the jail and prison system to allow companies to steal from those needing to talk with prisoners. What kind of example are they setting for the lawbreakers that they house?

    While we are talking about pet peeves of the prison system, one that I cannot stand is how the government ties court costs and fines to a person’s driver’s license. There should be no link between the privilege of driving a car and incarceration. Many in prison are impoverished as it is, and when they release someone, especially after convincing them to plead no contest, they eventually end up suspending their driver’s license until fines are paid. Unless that person lives in a metropolitan city, you have just deprived that person of the means to earn a living. Such laws are destroying our economy by keeping economic opportunities out of the reach of the poor. I know people who owe $5,000 to get their driver’s license back. These people can’t even afford to pay rent, much less the courts. And how can they earn the money to do that if they can’t drive a vehicle to look for work or to commit to a steady job? Our stupid draconian laws have created an endless cycle of poverty for these people. These laws also compel them to continue to break the law, because out of desperation, many will drive without a license, and when caught, the fines just keep escalating.

  18. The jaded Nick says you can almost always get access to a cell phone along w/ drugs in any jail or prison. The Christian Nick says this is an injustice. If you don’t have compassion for the incarcerated person, have some for the family members who end up paying these exorbitant fees.

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