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.
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