FCC caps cost of phone calls to prison inmates

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Bethany Fraser needed a minute to compose herself before beginning her testimony, but she didn't take it. She had been waiting long enough.

So it was through tears that she told the three leaders of Federal Communications Commission about her two boys, their father in prison and the hundreds of dollars they spent a month calling him, the cost of a inmate phone industry many say is broken.

"I would do anything and pay any amount to keep my children connected to their father," she told commissioners Friday. But, "On a monthly basis, these phone charges exceed grocery and electric bill combined."

The commission agreed. In a 2-1 vote, the regulators capped fees charged to inmates for out-of-state calls, which in Pennsylvania can currently add up to $11 for a 15-minute call from behind bars.

The rules set a limit of 25 cents a minute for collect calls, which now cost 50 cents per minute in Pennsylvania and 53 cents in the Allegheny County Jail. Even if other per-call fees are kept intact, the FCC's ruling would lower the average cost of a Pennsylvania call by nearly a third, down to $7.50.

"This looks like a huge step forward," said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative in Northampton, Mass. "The Wild West is over, if this means what I think it means."

Mr. Wagner is not exaggerating in comparing the rough coalition of prison phone companies to the lawless West. While much of the telecommunications industry is heavily regulated by the FCC and other government agencies, prison operators have remained largely unsupervised, free to charge inmates whatever they please.

And correctional institutions have been willing partners, taking a substantial cut of the profits. Some states require "commissions" of more than 80 percent, a fee phone companies are happy to pass along to prisoners.

In 2012, Pennsylvania made $6.9 million from inmate phone calls, with the majority of the proceeds going to the state's general fund. Allegheny County made $1.1 million last year, which it deposited in its prisoner welfare expense trust fund.

With the FCC's ruling, that's likely to change. Under the new regulations, phone companies cannot stick inmates with a bigger bill to pay commissions to prisons, removing one of the largest contributors to a phone call's high cost.

From now on, the fee paid by a prisoner must be based on the actual cost to make the phone call, with the understanding jailhouse conversations require special monitoring and security equipment.

And despite the rate cap of 25 cents a minute, the FCC indicated it would likely investigate any provider that charges above 14 cents, the so-called "safe harbor" price.

"This is not just an issue of markets and rates -- it is a broader issue of social justice," FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said at Friday's hearing. "When the price of a single phone call can be as much as you or I pay for a monthly plan, it can be tough to remain in contact."

In their decision, FCC commissioners cited studies showing offenders who stay in touch with their families are less likely to commit another crime. They also brought up the 2.7 million children with an incarcerated parent, arguing that denying them contact increases the risk of truancy, depression and homelessness.

That's old news to Mr. Wagner, whose group has written two reports on the high social cost of pricey prison phone calls.

"This is a direct punishment of these families," he said before the ruling. "You want to regulate how I use the phone in jail? That's fine. But charging my daughter a dollar a minute to talk to me, that's bad for everybody."

Allegheny County said its lawyers will examine the ruling to see what changes need to be made. The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections didn't respond to a request for comment.

Prison phone companies were similarly vague. Teresa Ridgeway, a senior vice president at Global Tel• Link, the state's prison phone contractor, said she hadn't read the FCC order and couldn't comment.

The commissioners were careful to point out their ruling only affected state-to-state phone calls, meaning Pittburghers in state prison would pay the old rates calling home. But the federal order indicated the FCC intended to take on local calls next, requesting comment from stakeholders.

In her closing comments on the new rule, FCC chairwoman Mignon Clyburn recalled the struggle of Martha Wright, a grandmother who filed the first complaint against prison phone costs on behalf of her imprisoned grandson.

That grandson, Ulandis Forte, was in the audience during Friday's hearing.

"Millions will benefit from your perseverance and your willingness to take a stand," Ms. Clyburn told him.

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Andrew McGill: amcgill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1497.


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