(Andrew Bardwell on Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license)

It was back in 2003 that a Washington, D.C., grandmother named Martha Wright filed a petition to the Federal Communications Commission asking federal regulators to address the high inmate telephone rates that were keeping her from keeping in touch with her grandson, then locked up in an Arizona prison.

On Thursday, more than 10 years later, the commission took another step toward addressing the concerns of Martha Wright and others about paying rates that, to use an example Commissioner Mignon Clyburn gave in a press call, make it so that a 15-minute telephone call to or from a prisoner within Arkansas can cost more than $14. "The current market structure," said Clyburn, "perversely discourages meaningful contact."

The commissioners are tapping into some momentum on the topic the FCC has built up of late. Last year, the FCC passed rules capping inmate calling rates — for example, to $.25 a minute for collect calls — on communications that cross state lines.

This week, Clyburn and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler began circulating to colleagues a draft proposal that would kick off the federal rulemaking process for calls that take place fully within the confines of a single state's boundaries.

All those involved in the debate, though, admit that just talking about calling "rates" oversimplifies what is today a complex transaction. Securus Technologies, Global Tel*Link and Telmate are three of the companies providing prison calling services in the United States. In a filing to the FCC this month, the firms offered a proposal to address the issue that, they wrote, "consists of several inextricably linked components."

And that echoes a statement by Peter Wagner, executive director of the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative. When it comes to prison communications, says Wagner, there are so many connected fees, charges and payments that changing just one is akin to "squeezing a balloon."

Clyburn and Wheeler's proposal would attempt to address the whole balloon at once.

The Clyburn-Wheeler draft would entertain taking the fairly dramatic step of banning so-called site commissions, or the fees that the phone companies pay prison facilities. Critics, like those at Wagner's Prison Policy Initiative, dismiss those payments as "kickbacks," while advocates for them call them a necessary source of funding for prison programs and other needs. The drafted proposed rules would also prohibit per-call connection fees. And they would, in addition, impose caps on both per-minute rates and what's known as "ancillary fees," such as those charged for creating, maintaining or adding money to calling accounts.

(Worth noting: The FCC will wait until the full commission votes on the rulemaking notice to release a draft. Instead, the commission distributed an outline of their proposal Thursday.)

Clyburn, on a press call, called her plan a "comprehensive, market-based approach," one that is necessary because the commission's efforts to impose "certainty and sanity" on state-to-state inmate calling seemed, she said, to lead to a spike in the expenses associated with intrastate communications.

The move to regulate communications contained within the borders of individual states is likely to trigger complaints that the federal commission is overstepping its mandate.  "We tried an incremental approach, hoping that the states would follow suit," Clyburn said. "But that has not happened."

And so the process rolls on, more than a decade after Martha Wright began her attempt to make it less burdensome to stay in touch with her grandson. Stephanie Joyce is an attorney with the law firm Arent Fox, which represents the Dallas-based Securus Technologies, which calls itself "the premier provider of innovative communication solutions for the corrections industry." Securus, Joyce says, "has participated extensively in this proceeding and intends to continue doing so."

Officials with Clyburn's office suggested that the required round of public commenting on the interstate inmate calling proposal could be wrapped up as early as the end of year.

"The wheels of justice turn slowly," Clyburn and Wheeler said in a joint statement, "but today we prepare to take the next critical step toward reducing the high price paid by inmates and their families to communicate."


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