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.