For nearly two decades, advocates of criminal justice reform have been struggling to correct a lingering and atrocious flaw in the US prison system: the often exorbitant cost of inmate phone calls, which can reach $ 17 for a 15-minute local phone call. A confluence of market failures, political intransigence and public indifference has created a broken billing system that the veteran Federal Communications Commission official Mignon Clyburn has described as "the biggest and most distressing type of injustice I've seen in the banking sector. the comunications".
Last Thursday, a bipartisan group of US senators introduced a bill that seeks to restore federal authority to suppress what prison reform advocates call the "usurious", "abusive" and "exploitative" business practices of a small group. of companies that dominate the prison telephony industry of $ 1.2 billion dollars.
An Obama-era policy sought to rectify the issue by limiting inmate call rates to only 11 cents per minute, but Ajit Pai, President Trump's telecommunications chief, faced a fierce legal attack by prison telephone companies, including The two titans of the GTL and Securus industry – refused to defend a key portion of the rule last year. As a result, the rules are caught in a legal quagmire.
$ 17 for a 15-minute local phone call
For years, GTL and Securus have exercised effective monopoly power in many states to charge excessive fees to inmates, families, lawyers and clergy who can generate monthly bills of up to $ 500. For a family in difficulty whose former breadwinner You can be locked up, it's a lot of money just to keep in touch with a loved one.
For Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), who introduced the Prisoners Corrections Act of 2018, addressing the problem of predatory prison telephone rates is a practical as well as a moral imperative. Numerous studies dating back decades have shown that contact and family communication reduce recidivism, make society safer and save taxpayers money.
"Our bipartisan legislation will help ensure that telecommunication rates in prisons are reasonable so that family members can more easily keep in touch with their incarcerated loved ones, improving the likelihood that rehabilitated offenders can become productive members of the family. society when they are released. " Duckworth said in a statement announcing the law.
Advocates of criminal justice reform say that the high costs of prison phones often place a heavy financial burden on families. A 2015 report by the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit criminal justice reform advocacy group, found that the median income prior to the incarceration of state and federal prisoners, who are overwhelmingly male, is approximately $ 19,000. A 2015 study by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found that one in three families goes into debt due to the high cost of maintaining telephone contact with their incarcerated loved ones. Eighty-seven percent of the family members forced to bear these costs are women, many of them with children.
"People in prison should not have to pay exorbitant fees just to talk on the phone with their children, their clergy or their lawyers."
"Incarcerated people should not have to pay exorbitant fees just to talk on the phone with their children, their clergy or their lawyers," says Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI), who co-sponsors the bill with the Senator. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ). "It's bad for human rights, it's bad for our justice system, and it's bad for our taxpayers."
Choosing between communicating with an incarcerated family member or paying utility bills is a dilemma that most Americans will never have to face, but it is one that directly affects more than 2 million incarcerated Americans and their families, including more of 2 million children with parents behind bars.
"The family and the clergy in some of the most difficult moments of their lives are being plucked, they have no other choice, to pay or cut off the people who need them the most," says Cheryl A. Lanza, policy adviser at the United Church. The arm of the mediatic justice of Christ, who for a long time advocated the reform of the call of the inmate. "The United Church of Christ takes Jesus' command to remember the least of them" seriously, particularly the people in prison. "
The decision of the FCC Trump to stop defending the limits of state fees in the federal courts was a blow to the defenders of criminal justice reform. Pai, a conservative Republican from Kansas with an extreme affinity for deregulation, argued that the Obama era rules outweighed the authority of the FCC. Last summer, a federal court accepted and ruled that the FCC state rate caps were inadmissible.
Pai, who in the past said he would like a legislative solution to this problem, declined to comment on the Senate bill. But FCC Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who strongly supported Obama-era rate limits, praised the measure as an antidote to her own agency's lack of progress on the issue.
"It is shameful that the FCC has stalled in its efforts to correct this error," Rosenworcel said in a statement emailed to The Verge. "So it's good news that Senators Duckworth, Portman, Booker and Schatz have stepped in and are leading the way to a solution with this legislative effort."
Advocates of criminal justice reform say the lack of competition in the market for inmate call services is a major cause of the high costs of phone calls in prisons, hence the need for fee limits . The problem is aggravated by the widespread use of so-called "site commissions", financial agreements in which telecommunications companies return a portion of their prisoners' income to prisons, as The Verge reported in 2016 on exorbitant rates of telephony in prison.
The "kickbacks" create a perverse market incentive in which prison telephone companies receive exclusive offers based on the amount of money they can give back to prisons.
These payments, which critics call "bribes," create a perverse market incentive in which prison phone companies get exclusive offers based not on how cheap they can provide the service, but how much money they can send to jails, in some extreme cases as much as 90 percent of the value of a contract. The Senate bill would strengthen the FCC's ability to discourage such financial arrangements as part of the agency's statutory mandate to ensure that prison telephone rates are "fair, reasonable and fair."
At a time when lawmakers are focusing on important issues such as infrastructure, Duckworth and his Senate colleagues face an uphill battle to pass their bill to Congress. (Duckworth introduced a similar bill last year that did not even get to the floor for a vote). But the fact that the new bill has won the backing of Portman, a conservative Republican, shows that the measure has the potential to attract voters. even more GOP support. A supplementary bill in the House could be presented this week.
In a statement, a spokesperson for GTL said the company is "aware of the legislation and has a continuing desire to work with regulatory bodies to ensure that friends and family can communicate safely and conveniently with their incarcerated loved ones." . "A spokesman for Securus did not respond to a request for comment.
For Clyburn, alleviating the financial burden and personal difficulties of families facing extreme telephone rates has become the centerpiece of a public service career dedicated to expanding, enabling and guaranteeing access to affordable communications for every American citizen, especially in underserved and marginalized communities.
"For too long, inmates and their loved ones have suffered under the burden of video visit fees and visits from atrocious inmates," Clyburn said in a statement praising the new law. "I look forward to the day when we can really say that internal calling rates across the country are fair and reasonable."