Calling on the FCC to address the high cost of jail phone calls
This week, the Prison Policy Initiative filed comments urging the FCC to take steps to lower jail phone costs and stop unfair practices by the correctional phone industry.
by Stephen Raher, September 29, 2021
On September 27, Prison Policy Initiative filed comments with the Federal Communications Commission, explaining what the agency should do to lower phone costs for people in jail and address unfair practices in the correctional phone industry.
For nearly two decades, the FCC has worked in fits and starts to address high prices and other problems with communications services in jails and prisons. In May, the commission slightly lowered rates for some callers and announced its intent to further revise the rules applicable to the phone companies. This week was the deadline for parties to file comments on the next round of new rules.
Our comments provide the following new evidence to help guide the FCC’s decision-making:
- A comprehensive review of phone rates in all 50 state prison systems (as of mid-year)
- A review of phone rates in jails with populations over 1,000 people.
- A quantitative review of 93 current jail phone contracts, showing that the length of these contracts is getting longer (which reduces competition).
- A look at the average monthly phone bills for people in prison versus jail (in four states), showing that people in jail spend 16% less time on the phone but pay twice as much for calls.
- A second look at data that the National Sheriffs’ Association submitted to the FCC in 2015. We conclude that sheriffs’ data does not show that small jails spend more staff time facilitating phone calls.
We also make several legal arguments, urging the FCC to:
- Lower the amount that companies can charge as “ancillary fees” (for things like depositing money into a prepaid phone account).
- Reduce consumers’ phone bills by waiving Universal Service Fund taxes on prison and jail phone calls.
- Crack down on deceptive practices that steer people to unnecessarily expensive options. For example, someone who was just arrested will probably not know about the confusing calling options, and phone companies often encourage people to pick the most expensive option when calling their family to ask for help.
- Not make family members pay for facility security costs through their phone bills (for example, expenses like monitoring phone calls and maintaining lists of blocked numbers).
- Collect more data that will allow the agency to refute some of the long-running (and factually suspect) arguments made by the dominant correctional phone companies.
Several other allies filed comments as well. Replies are due at the end of October, and it will likely take the FCC months or even years to issue new rules.