Marking what one advocacy group called “an extraordinary victory for the millions of families of the incarcerated,” the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Thursday voted to cap the rates for all calls from prison, jails, and detention centers, ban most add-on fees imposed by prison phone service providers, and set strict limits on the few fees that remain.
In a press statement, the FCC said it was “acting on its mandate to ensure that rates for phone calls are just, reasonable, and fair for all Americans” by reining in the “excessive rates and egregious fees on phone calls paid by some of society’s most vulnerable: people trying to stay in touch with loved ones serving time in jail or prison.”
“While contact between inmates and their loved ones has been shown to reduce the rate of recidivism, high inmate calling rates have made that contact unaffordable for many families, who often live in poverty,” the FCC statement continued. “Reducing the cost of these calls measurably increases the amount of contact between inmates and their loved ones, making an important contribution to the criminal justice reforms sweeping the nation.”
The new rules (pdf) cap the cost of prison phone calls at 11 cents a minute for debit or prepaid calls in state and federal prisons, and reduce the cost of most inmate calls from $2.96 to $1.65 for a 15-minute in-state call, and from $3.15 to $1.65 for a 15-minute long-distance call. The new policy also cracks down on service fees and so-called “flat-rate calling,” in which inmates are charged a flat rate for a call up to 15 minutes regardless of the actual call duration.
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“Voting to endorse today’s reforms will eliminate the most egregious case of market failure I have ever seen in my 17 years as a state and federal regulator,” FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said Thursday during the agency’s monthly open meeting. “The system is inequitable, it has preyed on our most vulnerable for too long, families are being further torn apart, and the cycle of poverty is being perpetuated.”
Rights groups have been calling on the FCC to provide relief from such high rates for more than a decade, and on Thursday they hailed the agency’s vote as a step toward broader criminal justice reform.
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