'Huge Step': FCC Slashes Costs of Prison Phone Calls

Tracy Connor

Federal regulators took new steps on Thursday to slash the cost of calls in prison, which can run as high as $14 a minute.

The latest action by the Federal Communications Commission—described as a "huge step forward" by one prison reform group—eliminates or limits fees commonly tacked on by the phone service providers. It also capped the maximum cost of a 15-minute in-state or local call at $1.65 and lowered the per-minute rate.

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The new rules affect inmates in federal and state prisons, including immigrant detention centers. They also apply to local jails, though rates are higher in smaller facilities.

"Calls that used to cost a dollar a minute now could be as low as 11 cents," said Aleks Kajstura, legal director at the Prison Policy Initiative, which has been pushing to make prison calls more affordable.

A file photo showing Inmates talking on pay phones in Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's jail in Phoenix, Jan. 31, 2008.
Charlie Riedel | AP

She said the new rates will benefit society as a whole, not just those serving time.

"Studies show keeping communication in between families members and incarcerated loved ones reduces recidivism, and that helps us all," she said.

The FCC said it began tackling the high cost of calls in 2013, heeding the call of a Washington, D.C., grandmother, Martha Wright, who said she was paying $1,000 a year to talk to her grandson. She died last year.

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The lawyer who represented her pro bono, Lee Petro, said the FCC's move will "lead to immediate relief to millions of families and specially the 2.7 million children who have at least one parent in jail and want to stay in touch."

Service providers have argued that the rates are high because the systems must contain features to record or monitor calls. One company, Securus Technologies, said Thursday that it may sue in an effort to overturn the FCC decision.

"Today, the FCC made a colossal error in judgment, law, and public safety and policy," CEO Richard Smith said in a statement, adding that its costs are higher than the rate caps just instituted.