For nearly two decades, criminal justice reform advocates have been fighting to fix a persistent and egregious flaw in the US prison system: the frequently exorbitant cost of inmate phone calls, which can run up to $17 for a 15-minute local phone call. A confluence of market failures, political intransigence, and public indifference has created a broken billing system that veteran Federal Communications Commission official Mignon Clyburn has called “the greatest, most distressing, type of injustice I have ever seen in the communications sector.”
Last Thursday, a bipartisan group of US senators introduced a bill that aims to restore federal authority to crack down on what prison reform advocates call the “usurious,” “abusive,” and “exploitative” business practices of a small handful of companies that dominate the $1.2 billion US prison phone industry.
$17 FOR A 15-MINUTE LOCAL PHONE CALL
An Obama-era policy sought to rectify the matter by capping inmate calling fees at as low as 11 cents per minute, but President Trump’s telecom chief Ajit Pai — facing a fierce legal attack from prison phone companies, including the two industry titans GTL and Securus — refused to defend a key portion of the rule last year. As a result, the rules are stuck in a legal quagmire.
For years, GTL and Securus have exerted effective monopoly power in many states to charge inmates, families, lawyers, and clergy excessive rates that can result in monthly bills of as much as $500. For a struggling family whose former breadwinner may be locked up, that’s a lot of money just to stay in touch with a loved one.
For Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), who introduced the Inmate Calling Technical Corrections Act of 2018, addressing the problem of predatory prison phones rates is a practical, as well as moral, imperative. Numerous studies dating back decades have shown that family contact and communication reduces recidivism, making society safer and saving taxpayer money.
“Our bipartisan legislation will help make sure that prison telecommunication rates are fair so family members can more easily afford to stay in touch with incarcerated loved ones, improving the odds that rehabilitated offenders will be able to become productive members of society upon their release,” Duckworth said in a statement announcing the bill.
Criminal justice reform advocates say that sky-high prison phone costs often place a heavy financial burden on families. A 2015 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit criminal justice reform advocacy group, found that the average pre-incarceration income of state and federal inmates, who are overwhelmingly male, is about $19,000. A 2015 study by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found that one in three families goes into debt because of the high cost of maintaining phone contact with imprisoned loved ones. Eighty-seven percent of the family members forced to bear these costs are women, many with children.
“PEOPLE IN PRISON SHOULD NOT HAVE TO PAY EXORBITANT FEES JUST TO TALK ON THE PHONE WITH THEIR KIDS, THEIR CLERGY, OR THEIR COUNSEL.”
“People in prison should not have to pay exorbitant fees just to talk on the phone with their kids, their clergy, or their counsel,” says Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), who is co-sponsoring the bill with Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). “It’s bad for human rights, it’s bad for our justice system, and it’s bad for our taxpayers.”
Choosing between communicating with an incarcerated family member or paying the utility bills is a dilemma that most Americans will never have to face, but it’s one that directly affects many of the more than 2 million incarcerated Americans and their families, including more than 2 million children with parents behind bars.
“Family and clergy at some of the most difficult moments in their lives are being fleeced — they have no choice — pay up or cut off the people who need them the most,” says Cheryl A. Lanza, policy advisor at The United Church of Christ’s media justice arm, which has long advocated for inmate calling reform. “The United Church of Christ takes seriously Jesus’ injunction to remember the ‘least of these,’ particularly people in prison.”
The Trump FCC’s decision to stop defending in-state rate caps in federal court dealt a serious blow to criminal justice reform advocates. Pai, a conservative Republican from Kansas with an extreme affinity for deregulation, argued that the Obama-era rules overstepped FCC authority. Last summer, a federal court agreed and ruled that the FCC’s in-state rate caps were impermissible.
Pai, who has said in the past that he’d welcome a legislative solution to this problem, declined to comment on the Senate bill. But Democratic FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who strongly supported the Obama-era rate caps, praised the measure as an antidote to her own agency’s lack of progress on the issue.
“It’s shameful that the FCC has stalled in its efforts to right this wrong,” Rosenworcel said in a statement emailed to The Verge. “So it’s good news that Senators Duckworth, Portman, Booker, and Schatz have stepped in and are leading the way to a fix with this legislative effort.”
Criminal justice reform advocates say the lack of competition in the market for inmate calling services is a main cause of sky-high prison phone costs — hence the need for rate caps. The problem is exacerbated by the widespread use of so-called “site commissions,” financial arrangements in which telecom companies return a chunk of their inmate calling revenue back to prisons, as The Verge reported in a 2016 investigation of exorbitant prison phone rates.
“KICKBACKS” CREATE A PERVERSE MARKET INCENTIVE IN WHICH PRISON PHONE COMPANIES ARE AWARDED EXCLUSIVE DEALS BASED ON HOW MUCH MONEY THEY CAN SEND BACK TO PRISONS
These payments, which critics call “kickbacks,” create a perverse market incentive in which prison phone companies are awarded exclusive deals based not on how cheaply they can provide service, but rather how much money they can send back to prisons, in some extreme cases as much as 90 percent of a contract’s value. The Senate bill would bolster the FCC’s ability to discourage such financial arrangements as part of the agency’s statutory mandate to ensure that prison phone rates are “just, reasonable, and fair.”
At a time when lawmakers are focused on big-ticket issues like infrastructure, Duckworth and her Senate colleagues face an uphill battle to push their bill through Congress. (Duckworth introduced a similar bill last year that didn’t even make it to the floor for a vote.) But the fact that the new bill has gained the backing of Portman, a conservative Republican, shows that the measure has the potential to attract even more GOP support. A companion bill in the House could be introduced as early as this week.
In a statement, a spokesperson for GTL said the company is “aware of the legislation and has a continued willingness to work with regulatory bodies to ensure that friends and family members are able to communicate in a secure and convenient manner with their incarcerated loved ones.” A spokesperson for Securus did not respond to a request for comment.
For Clyburn, easing the financial burden and personal hardship on families facing extreme phone rates has become the centerpiece of a career of public service devoted to expanding, enabling, and ensuring affordable communications access for every US citizen — especially those in underserved and marginalized communities.
“For far too long inmates and their loved ones have suffered under the burden of egregious inmate calling and video visitation rates,” Clyburn said in a statement praising the new bill. “I look forward to the day where we can truly say that inmate calling rates across the nation are just and reasonable.”