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FCC Eyes Prison Pay-Phone Rules to Protect Inmates

A set of rules proposed by the Federal Communications Commission could lower pay-phone rates for prisoners who are subject to extreme fees while trying to keep in touch with family. Changes in the policy have been on the FCC docket for years, but last month the agency made the proposed changes official. Inmates can be charged more than a dollar a minute — high charges for their families should they remain in consistent contact. The FCC would install rate caps and remove per-call charges.

“This is not just an issue of markets and rates; it is a broader issue of social justice,” Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel wrote in a statement on the FCC website. “When a single phone call may cost as much as a month of unlimited phone service, the financial burden of staying in touch may be too much for inmates’ families to bear.”

Advocates for prisoners’ rights have pushed for changes to pay-phone regulations for a decade, a movement that began when Martha Wright filed a petition with the FCC after being charged $18 for a five-minute phone call to her incarcerated grandson. Massachusetts think tank Prison Policy Initiative reports that a 15-minute call from a Georgia prison costs more than $17. The group cited a lack of regulations across many states.

Multiple studies tie an inmates’ relationship with their family to their ability to avoid repeat offenses and re-incarceration. Call affordability directly impacts a prisoner’s ability to maintain those relationships. The FCC has the power to impose interstate regulations that would force the phone companies responsible for prison phone lines to keep prices affordable.

“Families who want to stay connected to their loved ones spend as much as the cost of a new iPhone every month,” Deborah Golden of the D.C. Prisoners’ Project told the Los Angeles Times. “It just reached a point where the FCC had to act.”


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