Outrageous Cost of Inmate Phone Calls

Any attorney who has worked with clients who are incarcerated in local county jails or federal detention centers and prisons, both government run and privately operated, knows that the cost of prisoner phone calls is not just high, but in some cases, outrageous. In a much needed move, as reported by the New York Times on September 30, the Federal Communications Commission is finally poised to set a ceiling on inmate phone call charges.  This change will impact thousands detained or incarcerated in central and southern Arizona.  In central Arizona alone, for example, Federal Detention facilities  run by Correction Corporation of America (CCA), a private company,  report a capacity to house approximately 2300 inmates at their facilities in Florence and about 1600 inmates  in Eloy. Correction Corporation of America, https://www.cca.com (last visited Oct. 1, 2015). CAA also houses contract state prisoners from other states and jurisdictions. See id.  All of these inmates use the telephones.  And phone services in a for- profit prison run by a for-profit providers who have no internal competition and little market incentive to control rates, can lead to surprisingly unfair rates. Phone calls can cost “as much as $14 a minute” while additional service fees can result in “phone bills as high as $500 a month.” See Timothy Williams, High Cost of Inmates’ Phone Calls May End, N.Y. Times, Sept. 30, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/01/us/fcc-seeks-to-limit-and-lower-costs-of-inmates-phone-calls.html?ref=us&_r=0.  

Profiteering from incarceration facilities has long been controversial. In recent years, jails and prisons have “become financially reliant on revenue received from prison phone companies, which pay millions of dollars in concession fees, called commissions, to win exclusive contracts.” Id.

Because of these high concession fees, the cost of phone calls becomes increasingly more expensive because the companies say they are trying to “recover their investment.” Id.

The FCC proposal would impose a rate ceiling  of 11 cents a minute on state or federal prison phone calls, and cap the cost of calls made from local jails at 14 to 22 cents a minute. Id. These rates will  arguably allow companies to turn a profit while also allowing for jails and prisons to pay the security costs that are linked with monitoring the phone calls and escorting inmates to and from phones. Id.  FCC indicates that it expects the rate-ceiling proposal to be voted on October 22  and enacted in early 2016. Id.

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