FCC may cut prison phone-call prices


Martha Wright, 86, sits in her NE Washington home next to a photo of her grandson, Ulandis Forte. In 2003, Wright was billed more than $20 each time her grandson, who spent 18 years in prison, called her on Sunday evenings. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post)
August 9, 2013

Federal regulators will vote Friday to overhaul prison phone rates that have skyrocketed, concerned that a few companies are taking advantage of an unregulated corner of the telecommunications industry and isolating convicts from their loved ones.

The rates, which can reach $17 for a 15-minute call, have been a boon for a small set of companies and the prisons that get a share of the money. Many of the phone service providers are privately held and do not disclose revenue.

But their payments to prisons — a fraction of total revenue — reveal a lucrative business dominated by exclusive carriers. Last year alone, prisons in 42 states received $103.9 million in commissions from the phone firms, according to Prison Legal News.

Those arrangements have made it difficult for prisoners to stay in touch with family and friends, prisoner advocates say. The issue was first brought to light 10 years ago by Martha Wright, a D.C. resident who petitioned the Federal Communications Commission for reforms when she couldn’t afford to call her grandson in an Arizona prison.

“The cost of calls exploded to as much as $20 for a 15-minute call because of all the fees and charges. My grandmother got to the point where she had to choose between medication or taking our regular Sunday calls,” said Ulandis Forte, 39, who recently returned to join Wright after his 18-year sentence.

Lawmakers, civil rights leaders and hundreds of prisoners and their families have supported Wright’s petition, but the issue languished at the agency until acting FCC Chairman Mignon Clyburn revived it last year.

“This is simply the right thing to do,” Clyburn, a Democrat, said in an interview. She said half of all prisoners live more than 100 miles from their families. Nearly 3 million children have a parent in prison. “Multiple studies have shown that meaningful contact beyond prison walls can make a real difference in maintaining community ties, promoting rehabilitation and reducing recidivism,” she said.

The FCC will vote to limit per-minute rates to 25 cents for long-distance calls so that a 15-minute call can’t exceed $3.75. Extra fees to connect calls also will be banned under the proposed new rules. The new rules, if approved, will go into effect immediately, the agency said.

The agency’s action would upend a pervasive practice in 42 states where a few phone firms have been awarded the lion’s share of prison contracts across the nation with little competition to challenge their rising rates.

In the unregulated market for interstate phone calls from prisons, Global Tel Link, Securus and CenturyLink easily win bids to exclusively provide phone services to prisons with promises to share revenue.

Last year, Global Tel Link gave $2.49 million to the Inmate Welfare Fund of Orange County, Calif., which used the money to pay salaries and benefits of prison employees. Global Tel Link did not return requests for comment. It is owned by private-equity giant American Securities, which owns the Potbelly Sandwich chain as well. It also gave commissions of $15 million each to Los Angles County and Ohio state prisons in 2012, according to research by Prison Legal News.

Phone service provider Securus, based in Dallas, gave prisons in Arizona $4.3 million in payments and $5.15 million to Florida prisons. Securus did not return requests for comment. It provides prisoner phone services to 2,200 prisons in 44 states and is owned by the private-equity firm Castle Harlan, which also owns 171 Burger King restaurants in Puerto Rico.

“The business model that exists incentivizes charging higher rates for a phone call that is not that expensive to place for the companies but takes advantage of people who are the most vulnerable to these predatory rates,” said Steven Renderos, a national organizer for the Center for Media Justice, a public-interest group.

The firms have argued in filings with the FCC that the rates they set for phone calls reflect the higher costs required for added security features. The providers monitor calls and block calls from being forwarded.

And prison officials say they rely on money provided by phone companies to run crucial programs as public funding dwindles.

“These funds afford inmates the ability to receive education and vocational training. The money used for personnel are for these programs and are hugely important,” Orange County Sheriff Lee Trujillo said in an interview.

Critics and civil rights advocates say the funds unfairly target families and inmates. Phone companies and prisons enjoy hefty profits when the true cost of delivering higher-security calls is far below what is charged, they say.

New York recently reformed prison phone rates, barring commissions and reducing per-
minute fees. The average cost of a 15-minute long-distance call is about $1 in New York, compared with $17 in Ohio.

Virginia prison officials, who received $3.2 million in commissions from Global Tel Link last year, have expressed support for the FCC’s reforms. Harold W. Clarke, the head of corrections in Virginia, said in a letter to the FCC in February that the state is looking for a new phone provider for its prisons and will consider lowering fees and scrapping commissions.

Wright, now 86 and suffering from health problems, was not available to comment for the story. Early this summer, Forte was released from prison and rejoined his grandmother. They wouldn’t benefit from the FCC’s proposed reforms, but with the help of a volunteer attorney and civil rights groups, they brought the issue to Clyburn last November.

“No one was listening to her complaint for many years,” Forte said. “But even though I’m back, others need to know: Talking to my grandmother kept me grounded, kept me sane with all the craziness in there, and to not be able to talk to her took me to a really dark place.”

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Cecilia Kang is a staff writer covering the business of media and entertainment.
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