WASHINGTON -- The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 on Thursday to cap the rates and fees that companies can charge for phone service in prisons and jails.
Right now, providers can bill inmates and their families hundreds of dollars per month to make phone calls, tacking on exorbitant fees for transactions, account maintenance and other services. Inmates who can't afford these costs don't have other options, because providers monopolize service.
The practice has proven hugely profitable for companies like Securus Technologies, Global Tel*Link and Telmate. Prison operators also benefit because companies pay commissions in order to win contracts.
In a letter to FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and 15 Democrats called these payments kickbacks, and said they incentivize a system in which prisons profit from charging inmates higher rates.
"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, a Democrat, said on Thursday.
The new FCC proposal caps state and federal prison phone rates at 11 cents a minute. Jail rates will be capped at 14 to 22 cents per minute, depending on the number of people in the facility. The plan also limits additional fees and "strongly encourages parties to move away from site commissions."
The proposal has proven deeply unpopular with prison phone providers, several of whom threatened legal action against the FCC prior to the vote. Securus, whose earnings grew from $87 million in 2013 to $114.6 million last year, said that the preliminary proposal could be a "business-ending event." The companies fear they will collect less per call, but will still have to pay commissions to prison operators.
The National Sheriffs' Association was displeased with the ruling. "The rate caps established by the FCC will force many jails to limit, or eliminate altogether, access to phones because they simply cannot afford the cost of the service," said Jonathan Thompson, executive director and CEO of the association.
Immigration detention centers are included in the new plan and will be treated like jails, although the caps don't apply to international calls. This change will affect people like Cesia Pineda, whose husband is an immigration detainee at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. Pineda spends between $200 and $250 each month to talk to him on the phone.
Gregory Chen, director of advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told The Huffington Post that his organization has encountered limited phone access in family detention facilities that can "functionally erode the right of the mothers to access legal counsel."
"A meaningful reduction in fees, as the FCC proposal aims to achieve, would ensure phone access for immigrant detainees who are held for federal civil, not criminal, purposes," Chen said.
Twenty-six civil and human rights groups support the new proposal, including the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union. The groups sent a letter to Wheeler on Oct. 15 urging him to ensure reasonable inmate calling rates.
Studies consistently show that meaningful communication beyond the prison walls helps to promote rehabilitation and reduce recidivism, Clyburn noted on Thursday.
"Today’s vote will never make up for the inactions of the past, but it is my hope that the order will finally bring relief to those that have waited for so long," she said.
This story has been updated to include a comment from Jonathan Thompson of the National Sheriffs' Association.