FCC Decides To Cap Prices Of In-State Phone Calls By Prison Inmates

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's Father's Day. And if you don't live in the same city as your father, you're probably going to call him. How much would you pay to make that call? For millions of prisoners and their family members around the country, that is a real and ongoing question because rates for calls from prison can be far above those paid by people on the outside, in some cases as high as $10 a minute.

Two years ago, a federal agency, the Federal Communications Commission, announced new rules capping the rates that telecom companies could charge incarcerated customers for in-state phone calls. But telecom companies and some state governments filed a lawsuit against those rules. And last Tuesday, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., ruled against the FCC. And the Trump administration's appointed chair said the agency will not defend them.

To talk more about this, we're joined in our Washington, D.C., studios by Cecilia Kang. She's a technology reporter for The New York Times, and she's been following this story. Cecilia, thanks so much for speaking with us about this.

CECILIA KANG: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So why do calls from prison costs so much? Give us a sense of how much more they do cost than what you and I would pay.

KANG: I mean, so much more. The costs can be crippling for families that have an incarcerated person in their family who they want to keep in touch with. The reason why is because there are about a handful of pay phone prison carriers.

They actually have a monopoly contract with a prison. And the prison and the phone company typically share in the revenue from those phone calls. And the incentive has always been to increase those rates. The court that overturned this rule did say that the prices were extraordinarily high, even though they overturned the rules. We've seen examples of as high as actually $56 for four minutes.

MARTIN: So how did the rules come into place to begin with, and did they ever actually go into effect?

KANG: They did. Once the FCC passed its rules in 2015, it essentially immediately went into effect. However, the telecom companies immediately then sued. So there's been a legal battle essentially since these rules were enacted. The story behind these rules is actually a 15-year story that began with a retired nurse in Washington, D.C., who was paying as much as a hundred dollars a month to contact her incarcerated grandson who was in Arizona. And she sued. She filed the class action suit saying this is a civil rights issue. This is breaking apart families. These fees are astronomical. So this is 15 years ago.

The current effort that we're talking about today really began in earnest in about 2013 during the Obama administration, when the Federal Communications Commission at that time decided to put caps on the phone calls that prisoners make within a state and the phone calls that prisoners make out of state. What happened with the court is they threw out the rules for phone calls that are made within the state. And that actually makes up the majority of all phone calls though from prison, like 80 percent.

MARTIN: And what were the grounds for that? What what was the basis of their ruling?

KANG: It was a complete legalese interpretation of the rules. In fact, the judges themselves commented many times how they felt like their prices were too high, but they ultimately decided in a 2-1 decision that the FCC exceeded its authority, that the 1996 Telecommunications Act says that you, the FCC, cannot regulate state phone rates within a state. That's up to the states themselves. And that's what the current FCC that's now Republican-run by a Donald Trump appointee agrees with.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, Cecilia, could you just say, you know, from your perspective as a technology reporter why the general public might be concerned about this?

KANG: Well, the rate of recidivism, the ability to leave prison and to stay out of prison, is oftentime deeply connected to the ability of people within prison to stay connected with their families. And so if you cannot afford to call your family members while you're in prison, that's a huge social burden not just on the family itself but on society.

The other reason why I think people should know is that this tells you a lot about the economy around prisons and about the incentives - the economic incentives that have led to these big rates, that there are monopoly phone providers within these prison systems that are in many ways working hand-in-hand with law enforcement for their own reasons to create in the - at the end of the day these rates that are far above rates that anyone else in society pays just to connect with other people.

MARTIN: That's Cecilia Kang. She's a technology reporter with The New York Times. And she was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Cecilia, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KANG: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And we have one more note on this. Martha Wright was the retired nurse who asked the FCC to cap prison phone rates. She died in 2015. But we were able to reach her grandson, Ulandis Forte. That's who she was trying to call in that Arizona prison. He is free now. And he says he remains grateful to his grandmother.

ULANDIS FORTE: It means the world to you when you are cut off from society that you still can have somebody to reach in and to maybe feel like they pull you out. You know, I feel like I've grown with my family throughout the entire time because I would be able to communicate with them. So I didn't feel like a lost soul like so many people around me.

MARTIN: That's Ulandis Forte talking about the importance of affordable telephone calls for people in prison. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.