September 30, 2015 - 12:45 pm
By Mignon Clyburn | Commissioner

Over two years ago, the FCC adopted an Order reforming rates for inmate calling services, easing the burden of exorbitant charges for millions of families. This change was a long time coming. The journey began in 2003 when Mrs. Martha Wright, a retired nurse from Washington, D.C., came before the Commission seeking relief from the hundred-dollars-a-month bills she was making significant personal sacrifices to pay so she could stay in touch with her imprisoned grandson. Over the next decade, others from around the country joined this cause. I was honored to hold the gavel when the inmate calling reform Order was adopted in August 2013, and humbled that many of the petitioners who demanded change – including Mrs. Wright’s grandson – were in the Commission Meeting Room that day.

The 2013 Order was a big deal. But it was also only a first step. It covered interstate calls but not intrastate, and the caps the Commission adopted were interim pending further review. Over the past two years, we’ve been able to learn from the initial reforms, and today the Commission is moving forward with an item that draws on these lessons and takes another important step forward to make inmate calling rates affordable to promote connectivity with friends and family to prevent inmates returning home as strangers, which increases the likelihood of recidivism.

Anyone wondering why inmate calling reform is necessary should watch the testimony of Bethany Fraser during the Commission’s August 2013 meeting. Ms. Fraser is the mother of two boys whose father is incarcerated. Holding back tears, she explained how her phone bill regularly exceeded her electricity and grocery bills combined, but she “would do anything and pay any amount to keep my children connected to their father.” Fraser added, “Choosing between essential needs and keeping kids connected to their parent is a choice no family should have to make.” I couldn’t agree more.

Unfortunately, Ms. Fraser’s sons are two of 2.7 million children who have at least one parent in prison and the 10 million children that have had a parent incarcerated. These children live in households that are often suffering severe economic hardships, which are being exacerbated by unaffordable inmate calling rates. How high can these charges be? One call from a pro bono attorney in Florida was $56 with all the fees for a 4-minute conversation. Even if this is an extreme case, the fact that it’s possible tells you the system needs fixing.

Easing the financial burden on these families is not only the compassionate thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. More than 700,000 inmates are released from correctional facilities each year. Multiple studies have shown that having meaningful contact beyond the prison walls can make a real difference in maintaining community ties, promoting rehabilitation, and reducing recidivism.

Since our 2013 Order, we’ve been collecting information and monitoring implementation of the new rules, and the evidence overwhelmingly supports taking additional steps to protect consumers.

The interim rate caps we adopted in 2013 have resulted in higher volumes of interstate calls: 70 percent in some cases! These data confirm what should already be obvious: unaffordable rates discourage contact while a more affordable regime promotes communication.
Despite predictions of devastating impacts, I am not aware of any instances of security concerns or phones being removed from facilities due to these rate caps.

However, one negative trend we have seen is an increase in additional fees and charges, such as those to open an account, put money into an account, close an account, or even refund money to an account.

I’ve been working closely with Chairman Wheeler’s office to continue this important work. Today, the Chairman and I circulated an Order that would establish a reasonable rate structure for all inmate calls, regardless of where they originate and terminate, and limit costly fees that drive up the price families pay to stay in touch with their loved ones.

The FCC’s rate caps would fully accommodate the security requirements of inmate calling. These caps also would provide sufficient revenue for correctional institutions to recover the costs of providing calling service and a fair return for providers while delivering reasonable rates for inmates and their families.

Additionally, the Order would put in place a process by which the Commission will continue to collect and monitor data on rates and fees, and consider whether to revisit and further adjust these reforms based on the evolution of the market.

This action will protect some of society’s most vulnerable people from being taken advantage of, while strengthening families. I look forward to working with my colleagues to take another major step forward in this journey which began more than a decade ago.