The Slatest

The FCC Just Voted to Reduce the Exorbitant Cost of Prison Phone Calls  

Phone calls to and from U.S. prisons, including the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma, pictured above, will soon be cheaper.  

Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

A long campaign to reduce the exorbitant sums that inmates are charged to speak to friends and family on the phone just notched a major victory, with the Federal Communications Commission voting 3–2 to aggressively regulate an industry that until recently was, in the words of the Prison Policy Initiative’s Peter Wagner, “a dark little backwater of telecommunication that the FCC was not paying attention to.”

Currently, inmates and their families are charged as much as $14 per minute, a statement from the FCC said. According to the New York Times, the handful of telecom companies that do business with America’s jails and prisons were paid for about 6 billion minutes—500 million calls—in 2014. 

The Hill reports that the FCC’s ruling, which will go into effect next year, will cause the per-minute rate for inmates in state and federal prisons to drop to 11 cents. Local jails will be subjected to different limits—between 14 and 22 cents per minute, depending on their size. According to a fact sheet prepared by the FCC in advance of Thursday’s vote, the new caps will reduce the average rate of most inmate calls from about $3 per 15-minute call to $1.65. (Needless to say, this is still a lot more than non-incarcerated people pay to call one another. The argument for why prison calls need to be more expensive is that correctional facilities have to pay for technology that allows them to monitor calls.)  

Thursday’s move comes about two years after the FCC took its first step on this issue, when it introduced limits of 21 to 25 cents on interstate calls to and from correctional facilities. The rule that passed today will not only significantly reduce that limit, but extend it to all calls, not just interstate ones.

“This system has preyed on our most vulnerable for far too long,” FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn was quoted as saying in the Washington Post. “Families are being further torn apart and the cycle of poverty is being perpetuated.”

Thursday’s ruling takes a big step toward breaking that cycle by making it easier for inmates to communicate with family members, which research has shown can help improve post-release outcomes and lower recidivism rates.