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HRDC mentioned re prison phone justice reforms

The Hill, Oct. 15, 2015.

Time for comprehensive reform to inmate calling services

By Nicol Turner-Lee, Ph.D.

Mass incarceration is a fact with over 2 million people currently imprisoned.  According to data from the Sentencing Project Research and Advocacy for Reform, more than 60 percent of the people in prison are people of color. For black males in their thirties, one in every ten is in prison or recently incarcerated on any given day.  The rates of incarceration for women are equally troubling. More than one million women are currently in prison and African American women represent over 30 percent of all incarcerated females.

For many of these individuals, constant communication with their family members, including their spouses and children, is their only gateway to rehabilitation.  But, the exorbitant fees and surcharges associated with prison phone calls have made it nearly impossible for inmates and their families to stay connected.

In 2013, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took the first step in reining in these out-of-control prison phone calls when it capped interstate rates.  Since then, the FCC has solicited public input to institute a fair regulatory framework to benefit consumers. And, later this month, the commission will vote on rules to cap all rates and address the concerns of advocates for the incarcerated, facilities leaders, and industry experts.

However, even in the call for more caps and limits on excessive fees, the FCC has not factored in other significant pitfalls that stand the chance of keeping calls within our nation’s correctional systems still high—site commission fees.

Commission fees are not new.  These fees are payments made by service providers to facilities based on a percentage of total revenue.  Originally intended to cover the costs of administering phone services, site commission fees have gradually spiraled out of control and become more of an exaggerated bidding tool to secure prison contracts.  In some cases, commission fees can exceed 90 percent of total revenue for these services. Unbeknownst to consumers, the cost is passed on to inmates and their families already struggling to maintain contact.

Even if the FCC imposes further rules and restrictions, commission surpluses would actually maintain the exorbitant costs of inmate calling services.  The FCC record contains a number of testimonials from organizations that include the Silent Sentence Coalition and the Human Rights Defense Center that have urged the agency to reel in these costs and provide some jurisdiction over this antiquated model.  Long time industry expert Andrew Lipman even confirmed in the record that the FCC has authority to regulate carrier payment of site commissions to maintain more affordable rates for consumers.

If we are going to fully address this problem for consumers, commissions as they currently exist need to go or, at least, be reviewed by the agency.

Addressing inmate calling services is just a modest part of the larger battle for criminal justice reform, but it is a huge step in ensuring that incarcerated individuals are not completely disconnected from their roles as spouses, caretakers, friends and colleagues.  And with the disproportionate number of people of color that are impoverished or living in states where one hour of the minimum wage could not cover the cost of one phone call to loved ones, we need to do all that we can to reform prison phone services.

The FCC has already expressed interest in taking action under the leadership of Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. We need the FCC to engage in comprehensive reform that not only caps rates, but also provides some jurisdiction over excessive, and often regressive, site commission fees.  If done correctly, those individuals experiencing the trials of mass incarceration won’t have to go at it alone.

Turner-Lee is VP and chief research and policy officer at the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council.