FCC may limit prison phone call costs

Telephone companies are often granted virtual monopolies in exchange for paying high fees to the prisons they serve. The fees can drive the cost of a 15-minute phone call to more than $17. (Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)

When Alicia and Eric's son was arrested nearly 2,000 miles from their Southern California home, they sat by the phone, waiting to hear from him. It finally rang, and soon became their lifeline; it was how they learned he was fine and how they received updates about lawyers and court dates.

Then came the bill. In two weeks, they had racked up more than $200 in long-distance phone calls from their son's Illinois jail, paying about $1 a minute to talk to him. They were charged an additional $3 each time they added funds to their calling account with Securus Technologies, which had an exclusive contract for inmate phones at the facility.

"We felt like they were preying on loved ones' emotions," said Alicia, who asked that the family's last name not be used to protect their privacy. "But we had no other choice."

It's a problem facing many families of prison inmates, who are captive to telephone companies that are often granted virtual monopolies in exchange for paying high fees to the facilities they serve. The fees, often called commissions, can drive the cost of a 15-minute phone call to higher than $17, more than 10 times the average per-minute rate for typical long-distance consumer plans.

Now, after a decade of petitions from prison rights advocates and families of inmates to rein in the costs, the Federal Communications Commission seems poised to act. The agency is holding a public hearing Friday to consider rate caps and other rule changes.

"For too long, the high cost of long-distance calls from prisoners to their loved ones … has chronically impacted parents and children," FCC acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn said in a statement. "Multiple studies have shown that meaningful contact beyond prison walls can make a real difference in maintaining community ties, promoting rehabilitation and reducing recidivism."

Clyburn, who was appointed chairwoman of the FCC in May and has pushed for inmate phone-calling reform, has proposed rate caps, limits on per-call fees and even programs that would allow a certain number of free calls to prisoners.

Phone companies are opposing the changes, arguing they would make an already-competitive market even tougher on their bottom lines.

Today's prison phone market, which brings in $1.2 billion annually, is dominated by two little-known phone companies. Global Tel-Link, based in Atlanta, and Securus Technologies of Dallas, both backed by private equity firms, make up more than 80% of the market, according to Standard & Poor's.

The phone companies insist it simply costs more to provide inmate phone services, which require security features such as call screening, restricting phone numbers and blocking three-way calls.

"All the real work to allow an inmate to make a call happens before the call is even accepted," said Stephanie Joyce, counsel for Securus. Securus and other companies charge fees to initiate a call, add funds to an account or receive statements, partially to help recoup those costs, Joyce said.

Critics say that's only half the story.

The companies operate by competing for exclusive rights to serve each jurisdiction, rights often won by promising the highest percentage in commissions. Hungry for revenue, state prisons and county jails have increasingly awarded contracts to companies that can promise more cash. In some cases, commissions account for as much as 60% of the cost of a phone call.

The result is a patchwork of contracts across states and counties, meaning a 15-minute phone call with Securus can cost $17.30 from an Alaska prison or $1.75 from Missouri, one of eight states that have banned commissions.

"This is a market failure," said Deborah Golden, attorney for the D.C. Prisoners Project, who has fought to lower prison phone rates.

"There's no one to speak up for the people who are actually paying for the calls," Golden said. "Prisoners aren't the most sympathetic of groups, but their children, their mothers, their loved ones don't deserve to get fleeced."

Shannon McCabe is one of them.

McCabe thought she'd finally gotten through the trauma of seeing her son behind bars after he was arrested in Los Angeles County last September for stealing a car. She was spending $50 a week on phone calls at first, but that soon dropped to $25 per week after his court appearances waned.

Then in January, her oldest son was jailed in Los Angeles on outstanding drug warrants. McCabe was again spending $200 a month to speak to her two sons. Soon, she started rejecting some of their calls because she couldn't afford to pay for them.

"The bottom just drops out on you when your sons are calling home and you can't afford to pick up," she said. "You don't know if they're hurt, if they're sad. It's just heartbreaking."