Prison Phone Rates Begin To Lower

Last August, the FCC announced new rules aimed at reducing the cost of long-distance calls for prisoners. As Sam Gustin writes for Time, the rules went into effect this week:

The new rate caps, which were passed by the agency last fall under the leadership of acting FCC Chair Mignon Clyburn, impose a limit of 21 cents per minute for debit or pre-paid calls and 25 cents per minute for collect calls. At those levels, the cost of a 15-minute call would be reduced by as much 80% to $3.15.

The article explores both sides of the policy debate:

“This is a huge victory for justice for ordinary people at an agency that is usually more attuned to private interests,” says Cheryl A. Leanza, policy director at the United Church of Christ, which has long advocated prison phone reform. “Increasing the connections between families and inmates helps all of us. Strong family connections improve the likelihood that when inmates are released, they will not become repeat offenders, and that makes our society safer. We are very grateful to Commissioner Clyburn.” […]

“This means that many families will no longer have to choose between talking to their loved ones in prison and paying their utility bills,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, and Commissioner Clyburn said in a statement. “It means that society will benefit from the decreased rates of recidivism that family contact brings. These families can now afford to keep in touch because the era of unreasonable and unjust phones rates has ended.” […]

“We think some of the new rates are below our cost,” says [Richard Smith, President and CEO of Dallas-based Securus, the nation’s second largest provider of prison phone call services]. He said that his company, which has a 28% market share of the prison phone call market and was purchased by Boston-based private equity firm ABRY Partners in April of 2013, handles 120 million calls per year at an average rate of $3.50 per call. Smith acknowledged that some calls may have cost as much $17 for a few inmates, but said those calls were “outliers” cited by inmate advocates pushing an agenda. He said that his company handles many calls at rates cheaper than the $3.50 average.

“This is a public policy issue,” Smith says, adding that prison calling rates are determined by a variety of factors, including the number of inmates and whether a correctional facility is located in an urban or rural setting. He pointed out that prisons and jails select a phone service provider based, in part, on so-called “commissions” that are used to supplement cash-strapped correctional budgets and help pay for inmate and victim services.

If phone rates go down, private phone vendors won’t be able to pay as much in these commissions, so correctional institutions will be forced to make up the difference, according to Smith.

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