Feds Make Calling Home More Affordable for Inmates

Pay phones for inmates at the Fremont Police Detention Facility in Fremont, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Most of us talk on the phone every day, and we rarely think about the cost of a single call. But for the 80,000 inmates held in California’s county jails, calling home can cost more than 10 times the price of a regular cellphone call. That is, until now.

On Thursday, the Federal Communication Commission approved a proposal that caps phone rates and limits fees for incarcerated people in California and across the country. Advocates say the move not only makes it cheaper for inmates to stay in touch with their families, but it might even help keep them from re-offending.

"I am extremely proud that the FCC is finally acting on behalf of the 2.7 million children [whose parents are incarcerated] who have been suffering unfairly and most often in silence," said Mignon Clyburn, the FCC commissioner who spearheaded the effort. "No more excuses. No more justification for inaction."

High Costs of Meaningful Communication

The ruling comes 14 years after a petition was submitted by Martha Wright, a grandmother who asked the FCC to do something about the high phone rates that made it difficult for her to stay in touch with her incarcerated grandson.

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"There’s [been] a complete lack of regulation or competitiveness in any real sense in the market," said Aleks Kajstura, legal director at the Prison Policy Initiative.

Chris Siegle, an inmate at the Martinez Detention Facility, a county jail east of San Francisco, called me from a bank of phones inside his module. He told me every time he calls his mother it costs about $7.

"My grandmother is dying, and just to talk to my mother and be supportive with her about my grandmother's condition and the things that are going on," he said over the crackly phone line. "It’s an expensive discussion every time we talk."

And while the calls are important to Siegle’s mom, they’re also crucial for him.

"Studies constantly show that meaningful communications beyond the prison walls are what it takes to promote rehabilitation and reduce recidivism," Commissioner Clyburn said in the FCC’s chambers in Washington, D.C. "700,000 inmates are released every year, and too many of them return to their communities as strangers."

The new rule aims to get at the heart of what Clyburn called "the most egregious case of market failure" she’s seen in her 17 years as a regulator.

Profits Go to Phone Companies, and Sheriff's Departments

The people in jail are quite literally a captive market. Kajstura said phone companies have been unfairly profiting from this monopoly because inmates have no choice. If they want to stay in touch with their family members, they have to pay what’s asked.

Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods talks to clients and their family members in his offices in Oakland overlooking Lake Merritt. He said often it’s an inmate’s mom, sibling or even a kid who’s picking up the tab. And a $7-to-$15 call even once or twice a week is just out of reach.

"They’re worried about just putting food on the table, much less getting phone calls to jail," he said.

So why do jails agree to such expensive phone services? Back in the 1980s, phone companies started offering correctional facilities a share of the profits from phone calls -- what some call a kickback -- as a way get these exclusive contracts.

An inmate uses a mirror to look outside his cell at the Los Angeles Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles.
An inmate uses a mirror to look outside his cell at the Los Angeles Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

California State Assemblyman Bill Quirk says phone rates keep going up because counties want to get their cut.

"The Sheriff’s Department for each jail will say we would like the company to pay us so much for every minute of phone calls made from our jail," Quirk said.

In California this practice was phased out of state prisons by 2011, and last year Quirk authored a bill banning these commissions at county jails, too. But his bill died because the state would have had to supplement county budgets to make up for all the lost revenue.

"It’s upwards of $50 million statewide," said Cory Salzillo, legislative director for the California State Sheriffs' Association. By state law, he says all of this money is used for the welfare of inmates.

Claims That Ruling May Hurt Revenue for Inmates

The FCC ruling might actually hurt inmates, said Salzillo, because it "creates a situation where inmates will be deprived of much needed funding for things like treatment, rehabilitation programs, vocational, educational programs and recreational programs."

It remains to be seen what impact the ruling will have on county jail programs. While the FCC proposal does not ban profit sharing between inmate phone companies and sheriff's departments, it strongly discourages it. Clyburn called on states to help end the practice.

Without those funds, many counties, including Los Angeles, say they may have to scale back services for inmates. Others, like Contra Costa, have already found replacement funding. Counties will have 90 days to comply with the FCC’s order and renegotiate their contracts with inmate phone providers.

Most important for inmate Chris Siegle, the FCC's move to reduce phone rates means he will be able to call his mom more often. "I just tell her, 'I love you mama, I’ll try to call back later in a couple days.' "

Global Tel Link and Securus, the two largest inmate phone providers, together make up 80 percent of the $1.2 billion market. Neither company responded to repeated requests for comment. It is expected that they will challenge the FCC’s rate caps in court.

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