On December 28th, 2012, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed rules that could result in lower phone rates for prisoners and their friends and family members. The proposed rules would expand regulation of a roughly $1.2 billion market dominated by just two companies.
The agency unveiled the proposed rules to seek comment to establish interstate rate benchmarks, caps on rates and the end of exclusivity agreements with prisons.
In a report released in September 2012 FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn noted that in some states one fifteen-minute interstate phone call from a prison can cost $17.
In the latest update, Clyburn said those rates aren't helping prisoners keep family ties.
"With seven hundred thousand individuals released every year from these institutions, it is crucial that we do whatever we can to strengthen family ties before these individuals return home," Clyburn said in a statement posted on the FCC's website. "One sure way to realize this is through the provisioning of affordable phone service. The overall costs of not doing so are too great, for those who re-offend place a substantially higher economic burden on taxpayers than any lost proceeds that would result from lower prison phone rates."
Nearly 10 years passed with no answer from the Commission, but on Christmas Eve a hopeful sign was produced: a "Notice of Proposed Rulemaking," (pdf) the official declaration of a the opening of a period for comment before handing down a decision.
As plain as the injustice of these rates may be, the question of how to address them is not straightforward. How do you decide what constitutes a fair price outside of a market system? How do you then achieve that price? The Commission's Notice lays out nearly 20 separate concerns related to just the rate-cap proposal, and then floats several other potential tools for bringing costs down (such as requiring some amount of free calls, with higher rates going into effect after the free minutes are exhausted), all with their own additional set of questions. The Commission asks for comments and data on each point.
"This is a first, but very important, step in addressing an issue that slowly made its way onto the national media's radar over the past several months," said Jamilah King, who's written extensively about prison phone rates for Colorlines.com. "This is in large part thanks to the work of advocates, inmates, and their families who've said loud and clear: people behind bars are already doing their time, and their families shouldn't be saddled with extra costs -- especially when family contact is so crucial to rehabilitation."