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."
Until recently, California's prisons commanded some of the highest commissions in the country, raking in $26 million in 2007. Four years later, California became the largest state to phase out the payments completely. Phone rates for interstate calls from California prisons plummeted from $17.30 to $6.65 for a 15-minute call, a 62% drop, according to an analysis by advocacy publication Prison Legal News, which gathers data from all 50 states through public records requests.
The state's prison system, not known for receiving plaudits, has been held up as a model of success in eliminating prison phone commissions.
But that can't be said about the state's 58 county jail systems, each of which have their own contracts. In Santa Clara County's main jail in downtown San Jose, a recent check of phone rates revealed a 15-minute out-of-state phone call would cost $17.30. The same call, made to Los Angeles, would cost $13.45.
As the state seeks to shift more offenders to county jail facilities, more and more families could be dealing with county-set rates.
It's unclear whether the FCC, which is charged with regulating interstate and international communications, will rule on rates for inmates calling within a state, or whether it will seek to ban commissions to prison facilities altogether.
Securus says commissions are "simply a fact of life" in a competitive industry. Prisons and jails have increasingly awarded contracts based on the payments, which have become a source of revenue to fund prisoner services and amenities, Joyce said. "That's not our policy decision to make."
For now, Alicia and Eric wait, sitting by their phone every Sunday at 11 a.m. Their son, who pleaded guilty to a felony last year and was sentenced to seven years in an Illinois prison, calls each week, talking with his parents for 30 minutes between his lunch and church service. They try to squeeze in as many updates and "I love you's" as they can before a robotic voice interrupts them to end the call.
The couple wonder whether their son's phone service will change again, and if so, how much it will cost them, knowing they will pay the price, whatever it is.
"My greatest fear in this whole process is that I lose my son," Eric said. "That phone call every week is my chance to remind him who he is at his core and keep that part of him intact."