To Protect and Serve?

On July 13, 2015, President Obama made headlines when he commuted the prison sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders. Three days later, he made history by becoming the first sitting President to visit a federal prison.

Let's just hope, for all taxpayers' sakes, he didn't make a phone call while he was there.

Eleven years ago, our nation's sheriffs began receiving commissions on prison telephone services. Paid out by service providers and originally intended to offset the costs of administering prison telephone systems, these commissions have quickly spiraled out of control and are currently an enormous obstacle to affordable phone calls. Commission rates across the United States average 55 to 60 percent of total revenue, with some reaching as high as 94 percent. The practice has driven up prison telephone rates exponentially, and there are countless reports of families struggling under thousands of dollars of debt from phone calls -- calls that have been proven to lower recidivism rates by keeping families and friends connected.

In fact, the National Sheriffs' Association (NSA) recently launched an organized campaign aimed at combating any attempt to regulate commissions, and it has threatened to end phone call service to inmates entirely if commissions are eliminated. This is a sorely misguided effort to punish inmates and their families due to sheriffs' reduced revenues.

While most hope that these threats from the NSA are little more than bargaining tactics, it appears that our nation's sheriffs are more concerned with maintaining their cash flow from service providers than with the ability of inmates -- half of whom are nonviolent drug offenders -- to stay connected with their families, an important factor in rehabilitation.

Unfortunately, it isn't only the inmates who suffer from these exorbitantly high phone rates. In the vast majority of cases, the charges get passed down to inmates' families, who are already struggling under the financial and emotional burden of having a loved one in prison.

These are grandmothers suddenly asked to care for their grandchildren on the heels of watching their child be locked up. These are children who miss their mothers and long to hear their voices. These are brothers, fathers, single mothers -- families -- who have broken no laws, but are paying a premium as though they had in order to stay connected with their loved ones.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently decided to take up the issue of prison phone rates and is slowly taking steps towards ensuring that they are affordable. It is now time for the FCC to take the final step and decisively act in the best interest of consumers across the nation.

Extensive research has shown that allowing inmates to maintain contact with their families significantly reduces recidivism. Communication keeps them connected with the support systems they'll need to foster a successful life after prison. If that communication becomes inaccessible or unaffordable, the odds of an inmate going back to prison increase exponentially. In addition to the financial and emotional burden these excessive phone commissions are placing on inmates' families, we should also question what kind of burden they're placing on taxpayers and society.

The National Consumers League (NCL) was one of the first organizations to warn consumers about Internet scams, identity theft, and unfair credit card contracts that sent millions spiraling into debt. As Executive Director of NCL, I have a responsibility to alert American consumers about the financial and societal impact of prison phone commissions. As the government's oversight body in this matter, the FCC has a responsibility to act in a manner that protects consumers, particularly when they cannot protect themselves.

We must not be complacent to the fact that those hurt most by inmate telephone commissions are our society's most vulnerable families. These are the very people our law enforcement is sworn to protect and serve. It is time that we extend our understanding of that oath to include the abolishment of prison telephone commissions that prey on them.