Prison break: The FCC favors inmates on exorbitant phone rates

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Pennsylvania inmates will pay less for interstate phone calls, thanks to a new Federal Communications Commission cap on the exorbitant price of long-distance calls made from prisons nationwide.

The Aug. 8 ruling was long overdue, as a handful of mostly private companies in a largely unregulated area of the telecommunications industry have continued to jack up prison phone rates and isolate inmates from their loved ones.

Prisons in more than 40 states got $100 million in commissions from these phone firms last year, according to an exhaustive study by Prison Legal News. Inmate phone service providers paid Pennsylvania government an average of $7.2 million a year in 2009-2011.

Excessive prisoner phone fees unfairly burden low-income families and unwittingly undermine the re-entry and rehabilitation efforts promoted by state corrections programs. The Post-Gazette reported in July that inmates in Pennsylvania state prisons pay $9.35 for a 15-minute call to an out-of-state number. In the Allegheny County Jail, the price is higher: $10.65.

Alabama, Georgia and Arkansas charged the most for interstate prisoner calls: $17.14 for 15 minutes. By contrast, the average cost in New York is $1.

The FCC order will cap the cost of interstate calls at 25 cents a minute, reducing a 15-minute call in Pennsylvania from more than $9 to less than $4.

Strapped corrections departments didn't seem to mind the high phone charges for inmates, as long as they got some of the revenue. But it's an outrageous way to do business if the agency believes that maintaining family contact and community ties increases the chances that a criminal will succeed after prison.

Thanks to the FCC, hundreds of thousands of families around the country -- most of them poor -- will get some relief from high prisoner interstate phone rates. But the FCC does not have authority to regulate calls within a state.

Now that a federal agency has ended predatory practices on interstate calls, it's time for Pennsylvania officials to lower other prison phone rates.



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