August 6, 2020: The FCC, with a bipartisan, unanimous vote, approved the proposal to lower rates and charges for inmate calling services.

Telephone calls to and from prison and jail facilities are extraordinarily high. Incarcerated people are generally already financially strapped and every phone call adds strain to already limited resources. Recently, both federal lawmakers and the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) have taken steps to effectively decrease the cost of telephone communications inside detention facilities.

The FCC is proposing a cut to their previously established rate caps that would bring them down to 14 cents per minute in prisons and 16 cents per minute in jails. Specifically, on August 6, 2020, the Commission will vote on proposing to lower the FCC’s current interstate rate caps and also to cap rates for international inmate calling services, which are currently uncapped.

Lowering the costs of telephone calls can strengthen connections between those incarcerated and their families. These familial relationships are beneficial to not only the incarcerated person and their families but also increases public safety by decreasing recidivism. Indeed, one study found that when an incarcerated person has the ability to maintain contact with supportive family members, they are less likely to be re-incarcerated upon release.

High costs have made communication for incarcerated people difficult. To place phone calls from most prisons and jails, incarcerated people are usually required to create accounts with a private company that serves to facilitate phone calls and to hold money that has been deposited by family members. The incarcerated people or their family members must pay per minute for every phone call. Often, these companies will have a contract with the detention facilities, wherein the prison or jail receives a portion of the call revenue.

In an effort to ameliorate the expense of telecommunications, rate caps have been debated and imposed.  Specifically, in 2015, the FCC voted 3-to-2 to cap rates in state and federal prisons. The agency’s order dropped the average rates for in-state and for out-of-state calls. However, a court ruling found that the FCC lacked standing to regulate and to cap rates of in-state telephone calls.

Now, in addition to taking steps to lower the rate caps on out-of-state calls, the Chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, is calling on states to better regulate call costs. On July 20, he wrote a letter to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) saying, “I implore NARUC and state regulatory commissions to take action on intrastate inmate calling services rates to enable more affordable communications for the incarcerated and their families.”

Lowering rates for both in-state and out-of-state calls is important to ensure family relationships can be maintained. Family connections may offer significant emotional and psychological support, help incarcerated individuals obtain practical support, lessen the harm parental incarceration has on children, and promote public safety.

Rate changes to make telephone calls more affordable for incarcerated people is important to ensure that people in prison retain the ability to stay connected to family – particularly to maintain the connection between parents and their children. According to the most recently available data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 21 percent of parents incarcerated in state prisons had no contact with their children at all during their incarceration. Moreover, an estimated 47 percent of parents incarcerated in state prisons had never talked with their child over the phone.

Children with currently or formerly incarcerated parents may be more likely to struggle with mental health issues and may struggle with feelings of shame, but continued family communications during a person’s incarceration may mitigate these negative impacts on children and family members by supporting strong relationships.

Family connections via telephone communications are critical to successful re-entry after a person’s time is served, because communication can encourage individual transformation, mitigate the negative impact of incarceration on children, and support stronger families. This, in turn, can make communities safer. For these reasons, society can benefit by understanding the importance of these connections and creating policies that help to support them for the good of incarcerated individuals, their families, and their communities at large.

Image credit: txking

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