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HRDC's Carrie Wilkinson on banning jail and prison phone commission payments

The Baltimore Sun, Oct. 23, 2015.

Federal ruling to lower phone rates for Maryland inmates and families

The Federal Communications Commission agreed Thursday to slash rates on the vast majority of inmates' calls to no more than $1.65 for 15 minutes. 

by Alison Knezevich The Baltimore Sun

Phone rates for thousands of Maryland prison inmates and their families are set to fall drastically next year, thanks to a new ruling by federal communications officials.

The Federal Communications Commission voted this week to cap rates paid for in-state calls and to limit service fees. The decision follows years of complaints by prisoners and advocates about the high costs of prison phone calls.

"The system is inequitable. It has preyed on our most vulnerable for too long; families are being further torn apart, and the cycle of poverty is being perpetuated," said FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat who supported the rate limits.

Studies have shown that contact between inmates and their families can reduce recidivism, FCC officials said.

But service providers criticized the move, saying it will financially cripple their companies. Global Tel Link, which holds the contract for Maryland's facilities, has threatened legal action against the FCC ruling.

In a statement, Global Tel Link said the ruling will create "a financial tsunami" for the inmate phone service industry.

"This could have a crippling impact not only on service providers, which may be forced to cancel contracts, but on inmates and their families, many of whom may be left with no service at all," the Reston, Va.-based company said.

Maryland will see one of the largest drops in the nation as a result of the ruling, which caps calls from state and federal prisons at 11 cents per minute.

The average cost in Maryland of a 15-minute, long-distance phone call from within the state to an inmate will drop 63 percent, from $4.50 to $1.65, according to the FCC.

The decision follows FCC caps placed on interstate calls that took effect in 2014, and lowers those rates even more. Interstate call rates in Maryland will be reduced from 21 cents to 11 cents per minute.

Officials with the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said Friday they are reviewing the FCC decision. More than 20,000 people are incarcerated in state-run facilities.

"In the end, we'll have to abide by whatever federal rules are implemented," agency spokesman Gerard Shields said.

The lower rates are set to take effect early next year in prisons and midyear in jails. Phone rates at jails will be slightly higher than prison rates and will be based on the size of the jail facility.

In an analysis by the Human Rights Defense Center, Maryland ranks 46th in the nation for affordability of prison phone calls.

Like many other states, Maryland receives a commission from the revenue generated by the phone calls. In the most recent fiscal year, the state received about $4.1 million, according to DPS officials.

The commission model artificially inflates the phone rates, said Carrie Wilkinson, director of the Prison Phone Justice campaign at the Human Rights Defense Center, which wants the commission payments banned.

"We view the FCC action as amazing … but there's going to be more work to be done," Wilkinson said.

The FCC ruling discourages commission payments but does not prohibit them. Some states, including New Jersey and New York, do not accept such payments.

Fees are negotiated between states and the service providers, and vary widely from state to state.

Former NAACP president and CEO Ben Jealous is another critic of states receiving commissions from prison phone revenue, saying that corrections agencies do not make decisions based on the best service or rates, but rather on "who's offering the biggest kickback to the department."

"Nobody has the public interest in mind," Jealous said.

Jealous, now a senior fellow for the Center for American Progress, said the issue is "fundamentally about keeping families connected."

State officials say the commissions pay for inmate benefits, such as an inmate grievance office, gym equipment, televisions and pool tables.

The National Sheriffs' Association has said that lowering the phone rates will make it harder for jails to pay for security measures such as call monitoring.

"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," executive director and CEO Jonathan Thompson said in a statement following the ruling.

Bonnie Grewe, 53, said the high phone rates are a burden for many inmates' relatives. Her fiance is serving a sentence of life without parole for murder at a state facility in Cumberland.

"A lot of people can't even keep up with their loved ones," she said. "This will make it a lot easier for the families' lives."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun