More Reform On Prison Phone Rates

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Originally posted January 2 2015

UCC OC Inc., Center for Media Justice and MAGNet teamed up with religious organizations, civil rights groups, labor and many others to submit a letter today supporting further reforms to end predatory prison phone rates.  The letter supported the FCC’s proposal to end “kick-back” payments, known as commissions from phone companies to prisons, jails and detention centers.  The letter also urged the FCC to cap local rates and to block unfair fees, to build on the FCC’s historic decision to cap long-distance rates in 2014.  We also urged the FCC to take rapid action to protect people with disabilities, and to investigate unscrupulous rates for email and video visitation. 

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January 12, 2015
Chairman Thomas Wheeler
Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20554
Re: Rates for Inmate Calling Services, WC Docket No. 12-375

Dear Chairman Wheeler:

The undersigned represent a diverse coalition of religious, civil rights, public interest, labor, social justice and community-based organizations —from across the country —who join together to support equitable and fair charges for phone calls to and from prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers. We write to support the new set of proposals put forth by the Commission1 to eliminate payments from prison phone companies to the institutions that hire them, cap local rates, ensure that related fees are not predatory, and urge the Commission to act with all possible speed on the severe harm to disabled individuals who remain most challenged in their access to adequate and affordable communications.

The FCC’s vote in 2013 was historic, ending after a 10 year delay, the predatory rates for long-distance interstate calls. The FCC’s leadership in this area was extremely helpful, bringing down immediately long-distance rates for many families, and causing a number of other jurisdictions to become aware of the problem and encourage them to take action on their own.2 Families around the country are able to telephone their loved ones who are incarcerated or detained far away. This is no small victory and our thanks and gratitude are warmly given to the FCC leaders and staff who have been instrumental in this change.
The new proposal outlined by the FCC this fall is another welcome step. Most important, we are pleased to see the Commission take steps to align the interests of telephone companies and families by eliminating site commission payments from phone companies to the institutions that contract with them for telephone service. The FCC’s successful data collection revealed that families of inmates have paid $460 million in 2013 alone in “pass-through payments” “to pay for programs ranging from inmate welfare to roads to correctional facilities’ staff salaries to the state or county’s general budget.”3 While this number is an extreme burden on families and friends, it represents 0.3 percent of prison budgets overall.4 These payments create perverse incentives – encouraging prisons, jails, and detention facilities to hire telephone companies that offer the highest commission payments, which often means hiring the companies with the highest prices. The most beneficial aspect of this decision, from our perspective, is the rapid and simple way in which this will empower normal contracting and procurement processes to perform their functions—competition for the lowest prices.

We encourage the FCC to not only eliminate site commission payments, but also to backstop them with local rate caps that reflect competitive rates outside prisons, jails and detention facilities. The overwhelming majority of calls to and from these facilities are local calls. Further, with caps now in place for long-distance calls, there is a risk that companies and facilities will merely shift the cost centers from long-distance to local calls. Inmate calling service providers are clearly monopoly providers able to charge “supra-competitive prices” because inmates do not have access to competing alternatives. Only a few states and local jurisdictions have begun to respond since the Commission’s action last year. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 granted the Commission broad authority to regulate intrastate payphone rates, which includes rates charged inmates and their loved ones.

We are pleased the FCC is taking a serious look at the fees and practices associated with inmate calling and is proposing reforms. As the Prison Policy Institute found, ancillary charges represent 38 percent of all consumer payments for ICS.7 Consumers are no less damaged when unreasonable costs come in the form of unjust fees and charges related to adding money to accounts, per-call fees, credit and other predatory practices. We have a strong concern about the incentives that per-call fees give to inmate call providers. Many inmates and their families report excessive and repeated call disconnections, ostensibly when third party calls or other violations are detected. If the provider had no financial incentive to disconnect a call, it would be more likely that these disconnections would be limited to instances of rule violations. As the FCC recognizes in its notice, if inmate calling providers are able to increase associated fees without limitation, it is likely that those fees will increase to compensate for lower rates. We encourage the FCC to establish robust consumer education obligations for this uniquely vulnerable population. We also share the concern of the FCC that facilities are starting to charge outrageous rates for access to newer technologies—such as fifty cents for one email—or to limit in-person access by replacing it with video access.8 We commend the FCC for developing a record on these practices and encourage whatever steps can be taken to encourage competition and fair-dealing in the provision of these services.

Finally, we urge the FCC to be proactive with regard to the needs of prisoners with disabilities. The deaf and hard of hearing community face unique challenges while incarcerated or detained. We are gratified the FCC clarified that no additional charges can be imposed on inmates using the TRS (telecommunications relay services). In the present day and age, when technology is often used to make communications simpler and more seamless for people with disabilities, reliance on outdated technology for incarcerated people is not acceptable. We urge you heed the advice offered by the disabilities communities themselves, including comments filed by Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD). These stakeholders should be directly involved in any decisions the Commission makes with regard to their needs. This action would be a commendable step to implement your strong commitment to find mechanisms for the Commission to assist people with disabilities.

For all the above reasons, we urge you to address unreasonable local phone rates to prisons, jails and detention centers and take up the task of addressing the needs of incarcerated people with disabilities. We look forward to working with the Commission as you consider these important issues.

Sincerely,

Alliance of Baptists
American Friends Service Committee
Arkansas Cradle to Prison Pipeline Initiative
Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC
BEST: Building Entrepreneurs for Success in Tennessee
Center for Media Justice
Color of Change
Common Cause
Communications Workers of America
Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC)
Congregational Church of Algonquin
Day One
Demand Progress
Disciples Justice Action Network
Franciscan Action Network
The Greenlining Institute
Healing Communities USA
Highlander Research and Education Center
Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters
Illinois Campaign for Prison Phone Justice
Iowa Unitarian Universalist Witness/Advocacy Network
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
Martinez Street Women’s Center
Darren Mitchell Meade, Investigative Reporter
Media Alliance
Media Literacy Project
Media Mobilizing Project
Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office
Metodistas Asociados Representando la Causa de los Hispano Americanos (MARCHA)
NAACP
Nation Inside
National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd
National Council of La Raza
National Hispanic Media Coalition
National Religious Campaign Against Torture
National Urban League
New Jersey Advocates for Immigrant Detainees
Open Technology Institute, New America
Peace Action Group of Plymouth Church Seattle, UCC
Picture Projects/360degrees.org
The Peoples Press Project
Public Knowledge
Texas Death Penalty Education and Resource Center
Dr. Artika R. Tyner
Unitarian Universalist Association
United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries
United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society
Voices for Racial Justice

cc:
Commissioner Clyburn
Commissioner Rosenworcel
Commissioner Pai
Commissioner O’Reilly

Joint Prison Phone Letter – Commissions Local Disability – 1-12-15(1)

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