The Lookout

‘Predatory’ prison phone rates: Civil rights leaders urge reform

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What if it cost $17 to make a 15-minute phone call in the U.S.? How often would you call home?

That's the dilemma facing many inmates who must rely on the prison phone service and pay sky-high rates.

A bipartisan group of prison reformers is calling on the Federal Communications Commission to stop phone companies from charging inmates what they call unreasonable and predatory rates to make phone calls.

Why such astronomical fees? Phone companies often pay commissions to the state after they've won an exclusive contract to provide phone service at a state's prisons. (All but eight states allow these exclusive contracts.) The phone companies then pass on the cost of paying the state to inmates and their families, who have to shell out as much as $17 for a 15-minute call, the group says. That can add up to $250 a month to call home for an hour each week—a cost that the often-poor families of inmates can hardly afford.

But the money also drives revenue to the country's cash-strapped, crowded prison systems. In 2011, these phone company commissions generated $152 million in revenue for state prisons alone. In the federal system, which charges lower rates, the millions raised from commissions helps fund recreational and job-related activities for inmates, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

Still, the ability to call home at a reasonable price is an important factor in whether inmates rehabilitate and reintegrate into society when they return, say reformers.

The millions in telephone fees "is a tax on the poorest people in our society," David Keene, the former head of the American Conservative Union, said on a call with reporters.

"It makes no sense to cut off or make impossible their communication with their families," he said.

Prisoners and their relatives have petitioned the FCC to cap phone fees at 25 cents per minute for collect calls, with no connection fee. (Some prisons currently charge a connection fee of as much as $4 and then a per-minute rate of more than a dollar.) The proposed guidelines have stalled with the FCC since 2007, and the group of religious, civil and human rights leaders are urging action in a letter they sent to the FCC on Friday.

A spokesman for the FCC told Yahoo News that the agency is still working to address the phone issue.

Pat Nolan, a former California assemblyman who was imprisoned for two years for corruption and now advocates for prison reform, told reporters about his struggles paying for phone calls with his family during that time. Often he would go over the household finances with his wife and listen to his daughter talk about her schoolwork. "That was really valuable time, but it also was horribly expensive so we couldn't do it very often," he said.

Prisoners' phone calls are recorded and often capped at 15 minutes, and phone privileges can be taken away in some circumstances.

Perhaps the topic is ripe for review. Conservatives and liberals have found rare common ground in recent years on prison reform issues. Last year, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Grover Norquist, the conservative activist who founded Americans for Tax Reform, teamed up to say that states send too many people to jail for drug offenses. America has just 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prison population, which results in a state prison system that costs $60 billion a year.

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