In a ruling during August of this year, the FCC announced that the cost of phone calls paid for by jail inmates is to be capped at 25 cents per minute throughout the country for interstate collect calls, and 21 cents per minute for interstate debit or pre-pay calls. This is a drastic change to what has until now been a largely unregulated $1.2 billion annual industry.
While this decision was enacted based upon years of petitions and research for the previoulsy-unregulated laws regarding prison phone calls to change, the ruling was not reached without its critics. Many prisons are already claiming that the FCC’s decision is going to significantly decrease revenue for several prisons throughout the country. The Niagara Falls Reporter claims that “taxpayers will pick up the slack” for the increased costs of phone calls due to the new ruling.
A new report from Buzzfeed suggests that these increased costs are unnecessary, and the slack need not be picked up by anyone but the prisons and the phone service providers themselves, due to their corrupt ways of operating. According to the article, “up to 60% of the money spent on calls goes toward what are known as ‘commissions,’ which are essentially kickbacks from the phone companies to the prison system.” Every time an inmate spends a certain amount of money on a phone call, part of those profits are given to the telephone providers, and part is returned to the prison itself.
Because of this system, the article claims, prisons tend to choose providers that offer the highest commissions, rather than the lowest costs or the best service. Global Tel-Link essentially dominates the market, with Securus and Century Link also used by various prisons. The remaining telephone service providers comprise only 20% of all prison use.
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The problem is further complicated because most inmates cannot afford to cover the high costs associated with their phone calls. Thus, the responsibility is handed to whomever they are calling, typically family members that are in a similarly tight financial situation.
One inmate spoke about the way the system has corrupted his relationship with his wife, who couldn’t afford to pay the bills required to continue talking with him.
“This penalizes our family members instead of us ... our families have not been sentenced along with us and should have no other burden to bear than us being in here. To absorb a significant increase of their budget just to stay in touch should be criminal on the part of the State. Nothing deters them in [fixing the problem] but the loss of profit.”
The issue of the high cost of phone calls is simply one of many involved with the American prison system, but one that affects inmates and their families on a daily basis.