Jan. 3, 2013 at 2:57 PM ET
Families of those in prison often pay a hefty emotional toll dealing with the shame of their loved ones being incarcerated; for the past decade, civil liberties advocates have argued that those families shouldn't be further burdened by having to pay steep costs for calls from inmates, costs that can be up to 15 times higher, and more, than regular rates. Now the Federal Communications Commission wants to change that.
The agency is seeking public comment about inmate calling services, which unlike regular phone service, is a near "monopoly," the FCC said in its recently issued Notice of Proposed Rulemaking.
The issue first came to the FCC's attention in 2003. A Washington, D.C.-area woman, Martha Wright, said she was paying about $200 a month for one 15-minute phone call a week with her grandson, who was in prison. Civil rights groups filed a class-action suit on her behalf; the case was dismissed by the judge, who referred Wright to the FCC.
In the nine years since, "tens of thousands of consumers" have "written, emailed, and yes, phoned the commission, pleading for relief on interstate long distance rates from correctional facilities," said FCC commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn, in a recent statement.
The phone companies involved with prison calls aren't the major carriers most of us know, but mainly two companies, Global Tel*Link Corp. and Securus Technologies Inc. (NBC News has contacted both companies and will update this post if we hear back.)
The companies "like to say that the higher rates are due to the security features their technology has," such as monitoring phone calls and blocking numbers, Steven Renderos, national organizer for the Center for Media Justice, told NBC News. "But this technology is readily available and not something that should translate to $15 for a 15-minute phone call."
The center has been among the civil rights groups pushing for change, saying the commission rates families are forced to pay vary wildly from state to state.
"For example, in Alabama the commission rate is 61.5 percent, and this translates to families having to pay 89 cents a minute minute on top of a $3.95 connection fee every time a family member receives a call," Renderos said.
"Eight states have banned these commissions — California, South Carolina, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Michigan and Missouri — and in those states you see some of the lowest rates for phone calls. For example Missouri charges 10 cents a minute for a long-distance phone call with a $1 connection fee. The average commission rate in states that haven't banned these commissions is 43 percent."
The FCC, in its notice, said that inmate calling services differs "from traditional payphone services in a number of respects. First, although barriers to entry are low for payphone providers in most locations, a correctional facility typically grants an exclusive contract to a single ICS provider for a particular facility, essentially creating a monopoly at that facility. As such, competition exists for ICS contracts but once an ICS provider wins a contract it becomes the sole ICS provider in that facility."
In addition, "Unlike non-incarcerated customers who have access to alternative calling platforms on public payphones, inmates only have access to payphones operated by a single provider for all available services at that payphone. These contracts additionally often include a site commission or location fee paid to the correctional facility."
The telephone, said FCC commissioner Clyburn, in her statement, "is a crucial instrument for the incarcerated, and those who care about them, because voice calling is often the only communications option available. Most inmates along with their families and friends are low-income, so in-person visits due to distance and expense are infrequent."
As to why the public should care, Clyburn said:
Maintaining contact with family and friends during incarceration not only helps the inmate, but it is beneficial to our society as a whole. There are well over 2 million children with at least one parent behind bars and regardless of their circumstances, both children and parents gain from regular contact with one another. Studies also show that those released are less likely to reoffend if they are able to maintain relationships with their loved ones while they are in prison.
Another FCC commissioner, Ajit Pai, said in a statement that he is "open to exploring whether there is action we can and should take," although "we must recognize that choice and competition are not hallmarks of life behind bars."
Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement that the organization applauds the FCC for "taking the first step toward eliminating predatory long-distance telephone rates for incarcerated people and their families. We look forward to the commission’s prompt consideration of the record and rapid adoption of a fair rule."
The FCC will receive public comments for the next two months on its proposal.
And perhaps fittingly, it was both Martha Wright and her grandson — now out of prison — who both testified before the FCC in September to urge action, Renderos said.