The FCC closed the public comment period on intrastate prison phone rates on December 20, 2013. We submitted the comments below and our New Jersey phone rates chart was included as Exhibit B (p.27) in the comments of the national advocacy groups representing Martha Wright, et al.
Reply comments can be submitted on the FCC website until January 13, 2014. Sending your comments is easy – just go to the FCC website page for submitting comments and click on “Submit a Filing” (if you want to upload a Word document) or “Submit a Filing (Express)” (if you want to just type a brief set of comments in) and reference Proceeding Number 12-375.
You can also look up other comments from the phone companies and others at the same docket number to see if there is anything you would like to reply to there.
The Federal Communications Commission ended a grave injustice last fall when it prohibited price-gouging by the private companies that provide interstate telephone service for prison and jail inmates. Thanks to the F.C.C. order, which takes effect next month, poor families no longer have to choose between paying for basic essentials and speaking to a relative behind bars. The commission now needs to be on the lookout for — and crack down on, if necessary — similar abuses involving newer communication technologies like person-to-person video chat, email and voice mail.
Research shows that inmates who keep in touch with their families have a better chance of fitting in back home once released. Before the recent ruling, a 15-minute interstate telephone call from prison could easily cost a family as much as $17. The cost was partly driven by a “commission” — a legalized kickback — that telephone companies paid to state corrections departments. The commissions were calculated as a percentage of telephone revenue, or a fixed upfront fee, or a combination of both.
State prison officials and phone companies said the extra charges were necessary to pay for security screening. But this argument was discredited years ago in New York State, which has outlawed the kickback system and requires its prison phone company to provide service at the lowest possible cost to inmates and their families. Federal prisons also allow inmates to place calls cheaply to a preregistered, approved list of phone numbers.
The F.C.C. ruled that rates and fees may not include the “commission” payments that providers pay to prisons. It also set a cap for interstate calls: 25 cents a minute for collect calls and 21 cents a minute for prepaid and debit calls. And it required the companies to base charges on the actual costs of providing service.
An analysis provided last month to the commission by the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts research group, urged similar rules for video visitation, email, voice mail and other systems. It said that for-profit video visitation systems (allowing families and inmates to talk using, in some instances, personal computers outside the prison and video terminals inside) are being “driven by the same perverse incentives that caused market failure in the correctional telephone industry.”
Absent regulation, prisons and phone companies will simply use the video chats to get around the price caps on interstate calls.
Whatever the technology, gouging prison inmates and their families is both unfair and counterproductive, weakening family ties that could be critical to an inmate’s adjustment to the world beyond bars.
On September 26, 2013, the Federal Communications Commissions’ Order to lower prison and jail phone rates was released for publication. The order caps phone rates at 25 cents per minute for collect calls, as we discussed after the August 9, 2013 vote by the commission. Once the order is published in the Federal Register, it sets up a 30 day public comment period and a 90 day time frame for implementation.