The Federal Communications Commission just did something it should have done long ago. It cut the cost of phone calls made by and received by prisoners in federal and state prisons and most local jails.
Believe it or not, the so-called government watchdog previously allowed telephone service providers to add fees that drove the cost up of such calls to as much as $14 per minute. The new regulations will cap in-state and local calls at $1.65 per fifteen minutes and also lower the price charged per minute.
Just how outrageous is $14 per minute? You can make a call from the United States to North Korea — called America’s highest rate per minute by rebtel.com — for just $2.49 per minute.
Please allow us to vent: The old rates are clearly what’s known as taking advantage of a captive audience. Literally.
The link to the free government cell phone program
We’re certain that most people never suspected that prisoners were charged such usurious rates. In fact, it’s doubtful that anyone other than prisoners and their families knew. Like many Americans, we’ve had family members imprisoned. We know that for many struggling families, limited income means making a heartbreaking choice between speaking to incarcerated family members or paying the rent or purchasing lifesaving medications.
So while this isn’t the kind of news we typically cover here at FreeGovernmentCellPhones.net, a reader made us aware of the story and convinced us that we should cover it because there is a huge overlap between customers who qualify for free government cell phone service and prisoners and their families.
The common link: Poverty.
According to Wikipedia, there were more than 2 million men and women incarcerated in America’s state and federal prisons and local jails in 2013 (1,574,000 in state and federal lock-ups and 731,200 in local jails). The online encyclopedia continues:
“Total U.S. incarceration (prisons and jails) peaked in 2008. Total correctional population peaked in 2007. If all prisoners are counted (including those juvenile, territorial, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) (immigration detention), Indian country, and military), then in 2008 the United States had around 24.7% of the world’s 9.8 million prisoners.”
Who are those people? Unfortunately, it’s a sad fact of life that there seems to be a direct link between poverty and prison.
Treating the poor poorly
We are not in any way implying that the people who’ve been helped by the Lifeline Assistance free government cell phone program are criminals. But it cannot be denied that the families of those prisoners fall in exactly the same demographic as the majority of the prisoners. Here’s how PrisonPolicy.org laid out the poverty issue in 2014:
The American prison system is bursting at the seams with people who have been shut out of the economy and who had neither a quality education nor access to good jobs. We found that, in 2014 dollars, incarcerated people had a median annual income of $19,185 prior to their incarceration, which is 41% less than non-incarcerated people of similar ages.
The gap in income is not solely the product of the well-documented disproportionate incarceration of Blacks and Hispanics, who generally earn less than Whites. We found that incarcerated people in all gender, race, and ethnicity groups earned substantially less prior to their incarceration than their non-incarcerated counterparts of similar ages:
(prior to incarceration)
Non-incarcerated people Men Women Men Women All $19,650 $13,890 $41,250 $23,745 Black $17,625 $12,735 $31,245 $24,255 Hispanic $19,740 $11,820 $30,000 $15,000 White $21,975 $15,480 $47,505 $26,130
Figure 1. Median annual incomes for incarcerated people prior to incarceration and non-incarcerated people ages 27-42, in 2014 dollars, by race/ethnicity and gender.
Men Women All 52% 42% Black 44% 47% Hispanic 34% 21% White 54% $15,480
Figure 2. Percentage difference between the median annual incomes for incarcerated people prior to incarceration and non-incarcerated people ages 27-42, in 2014 dollars, by race/ethnicity and gender.
Does anyone think it’s fair to charge poor prisoners and their equally-poor families $14 per minute for the privilege of staying in touch with their loved ones? Seriously. Anyone?
Puting an end to cruel and unusual phone rates
By way of comparison, can you imagine the howls of protest that would erupt if cell phone companies began charging upper income Americans $14 per hour. We’d be surprised if they didn’t gather by the thousands with pitchforks and flaming torches in front of the cell phone companies’ headquarters with pitchforks and demand the heads of the CEOs.
NBCnews.com explains what a huge difference will be ushered in by this new regulation:
“Calls that used to cost a dollar a minute now could be as low as 11 cents,” said Aleks Kajstura, legal director at the Prison Policy Initiative, which has been pushing to make prison calls more affordable.
She said the new rates will benefit society as a whole, not just those serving time.
“Studies show keeping communication in between families members and incarcerated loved ones reduces recidivism, and that helps us all,” she said.
A few paragraphs earlier we asked if anyone thinks it’s fair to charge prisoners and their families $14 per minute for the privilege of staying in touch with their loved ones. Well, it turns out that one company does and NBC found it.
We’re sure you will not be shocked to discover that the company that thinks a $14 per minute rate is fair is none other than the company that’s been raking in the big bucks by charging $14 per minute.
One company, Securus Technologies, said Thursday that it may sue in an effort to overturn the FCC decision.
“Today, the FCC made a colossal error in judgment, law, and public safety and policy,” CEO Richard Smith said in a statement, adding that its costs are higher than the rate caps just instituted.
In related news…
In a marginally-related story that we covered early last year we said, “Attorney General Eric Holder and the United States Department of Justice just made a major announcement regarding free government cell phones: The program will be expanded to include parolees serving out their terms in halfway houses.”
The juxtaposition of these stories pleases us. Imagine how horrible prison life could be if you were unable to speak to your family because to do so would require you to pay some of the highest phone rates in the world.
Imagine how horrible life back in mainstream society would be if you still can’t speak to them because you don’t have a cell phone and still can’t afford to call loved ones.
Fair prices when you’re in prison. A little help when you get out.
That does not seem unreasonable to us.