Originally posted on Forbes
The cost of a phone call today is no more of a thought than the air we breathe. The cost of a phone call from prison, however, can take your breath away. For those who must pay such costs, which can easily average as much as a monthly luxury car payment, breathing just got a lot more labored.
Phone calls between prisoners and their loved ones on the outside often represent the only contact inmates have with the world beyond prison walls. Recent studies and common sense have shown that maintaining these outside ties is a vital link to successful prisoner reentry, and thus key to reducing recidivism rates. But high prison phone rates have dramatically restricted the amount of meaningful contact that prisoners can have with those that care about them.
Up until this week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was doing something about it. The cost of a call from prison to an out-of-state loved one was as much as a dollar per minute in most states just a few years ago. That was until the FCC stepped in to enforce rate caps at a quarter of that price.
Suddenly, inmates were able to connect with those they cared about four times more often.
The FCC was currently fighting to likewise reduce local/in-state calling rates, now as costly as long-distance calling. It just became painfully apparent, however, that they will likely be abandoning this effort, a devastating about-face for those hoping to soon be able to afford more quality communication with those on the other side of the wall.
The reason? President Trump.
Just as the Supreme Court is about to be dominated by the conservative side of the political landscape, so too is the FCC. Prison phone regulations were able to take hold during the Obama administration thanks to a 3-2 democratic majority amongst the five FCC commissioners. But with two majority members of the commissioners retiring from their post last month, President Trump gets to appoint new members, thus creating a new majority.
One of the likely first acts of the new commission: Roll back the prison phone regulations set in motion by the former office.
The price-gouging practices of the giant for-profit prison phone providers have been known, as have the millions of dollars in "commission" kickbacks that the prisons receive for utilizing them. As one FCC official, Mignon Clyburn, put it, "In my 16 years as a regulator, this is the clearest, most egregious case of marked failure I have seen."
The phone providers disagree. Counsel on behalf of the prison phone industry, Michael Kellogg, argues that the proposed regulations, when combined with recent caps and kickbacks paid to prisons put them "under water." A statement that is hard to swallow knowing that this is a $1.2 billion industry.
Some states have proven that they care more about reducing recidivism rates than profiteering by adopting practices that restrict or ban kickbacks from the phone providers, effectively reducing phone prices. Dramatically so. For instance, while the average cost of a 15-minute in-state call is $2.46, Ohio, New York and New Jersey charge an average of 70 cents. The Virginia's, even though they still accept millions of dollars in kickbacks, have managed to drop their phone rates to a relatively reasonable 3 to 4 cents per minute.
The majority of states, however, will not reduce rates until they are told they have to. With Trump in office, it is unlikely that requirement will come anytime soon.
In the meantime, prison systems, prison phone providers, and the incarceration philosophies of a president are allowing exploitation of those most affected by incarceration, essentially and callously extending the punishment to both sides of the prison wall.
Perhaps partisan politics won't spill over to the upcoming FCC considerations of prison phone company regulations. Perhaps they will wisely see the correlation between prison phone and recidivism rates and opt not to be penny-wise and pound foolish.
We're not holding our breath.