You may have caught my tweetstorm over the past few days highlighting several examples of bad practices when it comes to our nation's inmate calling services regime. Sadly, there are many more examples, particularly when it comes to city and county jails where some of the highest intrastate inmate calling rates across the country remain in effect. Arkansas County, Arkansas, for one, charges almost $25 for a 15 minute call; Clare County, Michigan charges $22.56; and in a Natrona County, Wyoming facility it costs $9.47 to speak to an inmate for 15 minutes. Contrast that with a 15 minute voice call from a mobile provider at $0.28, and you see why families and children of inmates are as captive to the system as their loved ones.
Given that the median income of a male inmate before incarceration is $19,650, how do you suppose he (or the family left behind) can be expected to pay a phone bill that is 8800% higher than before he began his sentence? And while voice rates and usage are on the decline for the majority of consumers, charges for inmates continue to rise in most communities.
Despite attempts at reform when the FCC made substantial concessions as it voted to approve rates that far exceeded what the data for over 90% of the providers own unaudited numbers substantiated,, Inmate Calling Services (ICS) companies continue to fight to keep their excessive profits flowing. For example, when the FCC’s 2015 Order eliminated all but three ancillary fees (that historically added as much as 40% to the cost of ICS calls), Securus, one of the largest providers of ICS, effectively transferred the now disallowed connection fees into “first minute rates.” On top of that, they lowered the prepaid account maximum deposit, so that the company would be able to continue charging inmates and their families exorbitant rates including when they add money into the inmate's account! No one except an inmate and/or his/her family, pays more for the first minute of a call; no one except an inmate (family) pays a fee in order to PREPAY their telephone bill. No one.
Some jurisdictions, it pains me to say, are as guilty in this egregious set-up as the provider. Exclusive contracts granted on the basis of the highest payment to correctional facilities represents one of the most glaring examples of market failure I have witnessed in my 18 years as a regulatory commissioner. Cuyahoga County, Ohio, for example, entered into an eight-year contract with Securus which resulted in a 42% increase in the cost of ICS calls. The amount the correctional facilities received increased from $.095 per minute ($800,000/yr.) to a guaranteed $3 million for the first two years (for all services). All this, on the backs of families and public defenders who can afford this burden the least.
These exorbitant rates all but guarantee hard times for an inmate’s family and children, who in addition to bearing the burden (with one less paycheck) of an incarcerated loved one, have to pay a steep price for simply maintaining contact. Gina Escalera pays between $75 and $100 per month just to talk to her son. Omarah Zemorah only talks with her daughter three times a month because the price is too high. These are just a couple of names and faces among millions adversely impacted by high inmate phone rates.
But I maintain hope because that exists as well. Some states and localities are actually moving forward, instituting changes, and making tough decision to forgo financial gain for the betterment of the correctional officers, inmates and the loved ones left behind. The positives of reduced ICS rates are well documented and have never been in dispute. Officers benefit because an inmate who speaks with their loved ones on a regular basis maintains a better mental state and is more often than not, easier to manage; inmates benefit because those who keep in touch, readjust more readily upon release resulting in less recidivism and lower generational incarceration; and loved ones benefit because that grandma who is now the primary caretaker can spend more money on food and medicine for herself and the children instead of on high telephone bills.
I am also encouraged by the bicameral support of the U.S. Congress in bringing attention to these critical issues. Just last week, Senator Cory Booker and Congressman Bobby Rush, both leaders in the fight for ICS reform, introduced concurrent resolutions (S.Con.Res.58 and H.Con.Res.180) expressing the sense of Congress that inmate phone rates should not exceed the affordable modified rates adopted by the FCC. And, Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth introduced a bill that would further establish a requirement for just and reasonable rates for ICS and video visitation (H.R. 6441).
So continue with me over the next twelve days, as we will turn the page and highlight the indisputable benefits of a reformed inmate calling services regime.