In 'Extraordinary Victory,' FCC Votes to Cap Exorbitant Prison Phone Fees

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In 'Extraordinary Victory,' FCC Votes to Cap Exorbitant Prison Phone Fees

"Because of today's FCC decision many families across the country will be able to change, overcome, and heal together."

When Wandjell Harvey-Robinson, a member of the Illinois Campaign for Prison Phone Justice, was in third grade, both her parents were incarcerated—and prison phone rates made it difficult to stay connected. On Thursday, she celebrated at the FCC. (Photo: Center for Media Justice)

Marking what one advocacy group called "an extraordinary victory for the millions of families of the incarcerated," the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Thursday voted to cap the rates for all calls from prison, jails, and detention centers, ban most add-on fees imposed by prison phone service providers, and set strict limits on the few fees that remain.

In a press statement, the FCC said it was "acting on its mandate to ensure that rates for phone calls are just, reasonable, and fair for all Americans" by reining in the "excessive rates and egregious fees on phone calls paid by some of society’s most vulnerable: people trying to stay in touch with loved ones serving time in jail or prison."

"While contact between inmates and their loved ones has been shown to reduce the rate of  recidivism, high inmate calling rates have made that contact unaffordable for many families, who often live in poverty," the FCC statement continued. "Reducing the cost of these calls measurably increases the amount of contact  between inmates and their loved ones, making an important contribution to the criminal justice  reforms sweeping the nation."

The new rules (pdf) cap the cost of prison phone calls at 11 cents a minute for debit or prepaid calls in state and federal prisons, and reduce the cost of most inmate calls from $2.96 to $1.65 for a 15-minute in-state call, and from $3.15 to $1.65 for a 15-minute long-distance call. The new policy also cracks down on service fees and so-called "flat-rate calling," in which inmates are charged a flat rate for a call up to 15 minutes regardless of the actual call duration.

"Voting to endorse today’s reforms will eliminate the most egregious case of market failure I have ever seen in my 17 years as a state and federal regulator," FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said Thursday during the agency's monthly open meeting. "The system is inequitable, it has preyed on our most vulnerable for too long, families are being further torn apart, and the cycle of poverty is being perpetuated."

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Rights groups have been calling on the FCC to provide relief from such high rates for more than a decade, and on Thursday they hailed the agency's vote as a step toward broader criminal justice reform. 

"In passing the most comprehensive reforms to date to the prison phone industry, champions like Commissioner Clyburn listened to those long considered voiceless—the families of the 2.4 million people incarcerated in the United States," said Malkia Cyril, executive director at the Center for Media Justice and co-founder of the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net). "While there is more work to do to ban commissions and protect the right to in-person visitation, the dozens of organizations and almost 200,000 individuals that fought long and hard for this day should be proud. It’s long past time to reform the unreasonable rates predatory companies impose upon on a captive consumer base."

Indeed, Clyburn on Thursday specifically hailed "the tireless advocacy of the Media Action Grassroots Network who brought this issue to my attention three years ago and continued to passionately push for relief for the most economically vulnerable in our society."

A report released last month by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together, and Research Action Design revealed that the exorbitant costs of prison calls, legal fees, and other incarceration-related expenses are disproportionately born by black women—and contribute to the trauma and poverty endured by family members.

Devin Coleman, a formerly incarcerated organizer with Florida New Majority, added: "Sometimes visiting is not an option and the next best thing is hearing the voice of a loved one. I know from personal experience how vital it is to hear that voice of support, encouragement, and hope from a family member. Because of today’s FCC decision many families across the country will be able to change, overcome, and heal together."

On Thursday, MAG-Net shared videos from individuals who will be directly affected by the FCC's decision:

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