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Communications The Almighty Buck United States Your Rights Online

FCC Passes Landmark Reform of 'Egregious' Prison Phone Charges (vice.com) 173

derekmead writes: The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to crack down on exorbitant prison phone rates, in a landmark victory for criminal justice reform advocates who have long criticized what they call abusive and predatory practices by phone companies. The new FCC rules cap the cost of prison phone calls at 11 cents a minute for debit or prepaid calls in state and federal prisons, and reduce the cost of most inmate calls from $2.96 to $1.65 for a 15-minute in-state call, and from $3.15 to $1.65 for a 15-minute long distance call. The new policy also cracks down on excessive service fees and so-called "flat-rate calling," in which inmates are charged a flat rate for a call up to 15 minutes regardless of the actual call duration.
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FCC Passes Landmark Reform of 'Egregious' Prison Phone Charges

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  • 11 cents a minute? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by rjstanford ( 69735 ) on Thursday October 22, 2015 @12:57PM (#50782617) Homepage Journal

    For a landline call? Still sounds pretty egregious to me. The prisoners already have to qualify for their calls, and from what I understand aren't allowed very many of them in the best cases. Why add another punishment on top of what they're already serving? There's no real reason to break out the phone calls and make them orders of magnitude more expensive to prisoners than they actually are.

    • by Fire_Wraith ( 1460385 ) on Thursday October 22, 2015 @01:03PM (#50782669)
      Sure there is - profit! The corporations involved in this have every reason to jack those rates as high as they can go, because the prisoners are quite literally a 'captive audience'. Privately run prisons are the worst about this, but even publicly operated prisons often contract out to private companies for things like telecommunication services.

      What, you mean there are things like morals, ethics, and limits on what should be reasonable? What are you, some kind of Communist?
      • by tripleevenfall ( 1990004 ) on Thursday October 22, 2015 @01:21PM (#50782851)

        The prisons need to enable inmates to call only the numbers they've been authorized to call. Someone has to approve applications to enable telephone numbers. Someone needs to process the background information and telephone bills that are sent in to verify identities. Someone needs to manage the billing and payment aspects of all of this. Someone has to archive the recordings. etc etc. This operation is contracted out like anything else. The prison can't reasonably do this, nor should they be doing it.

        • by cdrudge ( 68377 ) on Thursday October 22, 2015 @01:34PM (#50782939) Homepage

          Are the prison phone companies actually the ones doing all that though? I was under the impression that the phone companies involved were glorified calling cards that handled the finances of the phone call, but the security was up to the prison/jail/DOC still.

          • To use a tied phrase, "This." From what I've seen you are entirely correct in your assumptions, at least in many cases.

          • I remember reading an article on this. It's something of a mixed bag - some are indeed effectively calling card companies, leaving all admin up to the prison itself, but normally providing kickbacks to the prison.

            In other cases, by contract they provide a 'complete service'. IE they own and are responsible for the 'complete' system. The prison officials are probably only in charge of authorizing phone numbers. IE signing that XYZ numbers are allowed for prisoner 123. The company provides(and maintains)

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by vovin ( 12759 )

          Doesn't the NSA already do most of this for free*?

          * free in the sense that tax payers are forced to pay for something that has no public benefit whatsoever, so why not get something out of it?

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          The prisons need to enable inmates to call only the numbers they've been authorized to call.

          News to me. I've gotten calls before from inmates and none of them ever mentioned needing to pre-authorize the number.

          Someone has to approve applications to enable telephone numbers.

          Why?

          Someone needs to process the background information and telephone bills that are sent in to verify identities. Someone needs to manage the billing and payment aspects of all of this. Someone has to archive the recordings. etc etc. This operation is contracted out like anything else. The prison can't reasonably do this, nor should they be doing it.

          Yeah, you're suffering from a bad case of privatazation-itis there. There is absolutely no reason that administrative staff could not be trained to manage such a system as part of their responsibilities except that the profitability of the private sector would suffer thereby. Just like there is *absolutely* no reason that the private sector should be able to run a prison at less cost

          • by LiENUS ( 207736 )

            The prisons need to enable inmates to call only the numbers they've been authorized to call.

            News to me. I've gotten calls before from inmates and none of them ever mentioned needing to pre-authorize the number.

            Depends on the situation, I don't think the county/parish jail requires pre-authorized numbers, that way when you first get locked up you can call around to find a lawyer. But the big boy state prisons shouldn't be letting offenders just call you at random

            Someone has to approve applications to enable telephone numbers.

            Why?

            Investigations checks out the number looking for things does this number belong to the offenders criminal contacts? Or the offenders victim/victims family? Those things get denied.

            Someone needs to process the background information and telephone bills that are sent in to verify identities. Someone needs to manage the billing and payment aspects of all of this. Someone has to archive the recordings. etc etc. This operation is contracted out like anything else. The prison can't reasonably do this, nor should they be doing it.

            Yeah, you're suffering from a bad case of privatazation-itis there. There is absolutely no reason that administrative staff could not be trained to manage such a system as part of their responsibilities except that the profitability of the private sector would suffer thereby. Just like there is *absolutely* no reason that the private sector should be able to run a prison at less cost than the government can. (Except by compromising reasonable wages and safety by so doing.)

            Yeah all that stuff is handled by investigations in the prison I worked at.

        • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Thursday October 22, 2015 @01:57PM (#50783159)

          The prisons need to enable inmates to call only the numbers they've been authorized to call.

          Last time I was in jail, there were no restrictions on who I could call. I don't see any need to maintain a "whitelist". A "blacklist" of numbers not to be called would be easier. But even then, it doesn't have to be enforced through the phone system. It could just be rule-based: You call your ex-girlfriend (the one you are in jail for beating up) and you will lose your phone privileges. Phone policies vary widely between different states, and even different prisons within states.

          Inmates have lower recidivism rates when they keep social contacts with the family and friends. Isolating these people from society by restricting phone calls arbitrarily, and charging extortionate tolls, is not sensible policy.

          • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

            by Anonymous Coward

            Jail is not prison. State prisons (I was a CO) can and will restrict calls so you don't harass your accusers. All calls are recorded/screened.

            Phone priv's were a pain in the ass... if an inmate got bad news or had an argument on the phone that means as a CO my stress level goes up.. will he start a fight? Attack the first person that sets them off??

          • Sure it does (Score:5, Interesting)

            by rsilvergun ( 571051 ) on Thursday October 22, 2015 @02:26PM (#50783411)
            It's totally sensible policy. Higher recidivism means higher profits for private prisons and the industry around them. You gotta keep those non-violent offenders coming back. You can't make good money off just the violent psychos, too expensive to house and you'll never get your fees out of 'em since they're crazy.
          • So there's another reason to make sure they don't call too often. An empty cell is a cell that doesn't make money.

      • It is pretty bad when many VOIP services are under $20/mo including all of the US and Canada. Other than a captive user group, there is no reason for this to exist. One or two VOIP lines on the Internet should not be a burden.

        A Google Voice line is free in the US and maybe elsewhere. No need to keep funds in the account unless you want overseas calls.

    • by quetwo ( 1203948 )

      In the business community, it's pretty common to still see rates of about $0.10/minute for long distance and $0.10/call for local calls. It's not a great rate, but it's not out of the ordinary. Business lines are still far from the unlimited/unlimited rates offered to consumers.

      • by vovin ( 12759 )

        I call BS.
        We negotiated 1-800 rates at 2.5/min cents over 6 years ago.

      • Might be time to reconsider VoIP as long as you're not with a congested Internet provider. You'll get that below 2 cents.

      • I was going to say. I'm pretty sure that Bell Canada charges 10 cents a minute for long distance unless you sign up for a plan, in which case you'll end up spending $10-$20 extra every month for the privilege of getting lower per minute rates. This is part of the reason I switched to a VOIP provider. Bell was charging me $70 a month, and I still had to pay for long distance on top of that. Compare that to my VOIP provider who charges me $25 a month, including unlimited long distance to Canada and the US.

        • by dryeo ( 100693 )

          Telus still charges 27 cents a minute, with discounts after 5PM or on weekends and $5 a month for access to long distance, $8.95 a month for call display, and $35.95 a month for dial-up. All the plans include high speed internet so if you live somewhere with no choice but dial-up, no plans. Also no VOIP.

      • That seems expensive. In the UK, it is generally 0p per minute for a call to anywhere in the country. I guess in terms of size, that is equivalent to a US state.

    • For a landline call? Still sounds pretty egregious to me. The prisoners already have to qualify for their calls, and from what I understand aren't allowed very many of them in the best cases. Why add another punishment on top of what they're already serving? There's no real reason to break out the phone calls and make them orders of magnitude more expensive to prisoners than they actually are.

      You question greed and capitalism in the privatized prison system running in the United States of Incarceration?

      That's rather silly.

    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Thursday October 22, 2015 @01:45PM (#50783025) Journal
      There is an argument for some additional cost(certain inmates are people who you have justifiable concerns about their communicating with confederates on the outside, so you probably need more oversight than a standard fully automated system).

      Aside from that, though, there are reasons, just bad ones. You've got a captive audience, and you can bid to be the exclusive provider, so competition isn't a concern; and states looking to be tough on crime without paying for it are more than happy to treat prisoner phone calls, commisary purchases, etc. as a profit center.

      It's horribly penny-wise, pound-foolish, of course because making it easier for inmates to maintain social bonds reduces recidivism at relatively low cost(obviously it isn't 100% effective; but landline minutes are hilariously cheap compared to even the most basic correctional staff, never mind any sort of specialists, so it's hard to argue with the value for money); but that isn't how the immediate incentives line up, so they do it anyway.
      • by Fwipp ( 1473271 )

        Private prisons are paid to lock people up.

        Increasing recidivism is *good* for their bottom line.

    • There's no real reason to break out the phone calls and make them orders of magnitude more expensive to prisoners than they actually are.

      No, but you don't account for the real costs, which primarily are monitoring (listening in on) the call.

      For real, that's the other side's argument.

    • Why let them have calls at all? They're in prison, they have visiting days, why are we so concerned about their luxuries?

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Because people who maintain their family connections and other support frameworks while in prison have a better chance at rehabilitiation and not re-offending than those who don't. Spend 30 seconds googling this and find out.

        If you're ideologically driven, yes by all means punish them even if it means higher crime rates in the future. If you're results driven, then allow them to maintain family connections. It's a pretty simple decision to make regardless of what you're driven by.

      • by mvdwege ( 243851 )

        Because they are still human?

    • Phone policy varies wildly. In some jails, there's even phones right in the cells (4-6 inmates). They were turned on from 7am-11pm; you could talk your way through $60/day easily; and there was no "qualifying"... you could lose the privilege from abuse; but no approvals, no white lists reviewed by staff, no restriction on calling mobile numbers, etc. Could even have conference calls (against the phone companies policy, but unenforced).
      Other places; 4 phones for 64 inmates with all sorts of restrictions on
    • For a landline call? Still sounds pretty egregious to me.

      HUH? That sounds CHEAP to me. But I admit I'm comparing it to phone calls a few _decades_ ago to BBSes. Even in the same area code, or one code over.

      Based on a bit of searching, the local "zones" still exist, but I can't find pricing info.

  • Good (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Zak3056 ( 69287 ) on Thursday October 22, 2015 @12:58PM (#50782623) Journal

    The costs associated with jail/prison phone calls are ridiculous, and NO ONE has had any incentive to change that. The institutions get a cut, politicians don't want to me "soft on crime" and the net result is that a literally captive market, which has minimal to no resources, gets screwed into the ground.

    I'm not the world's biggest fan of the FCC, but good job on their part.

  • I haven't paid a "long distance" rate for over 20 years. Prisons should just drop phone companies altogether and go with someone like Vonage for dramatically cheaper domestic calling.

    • by Darinbob ( 1142669 ) on Thursday October 22, 2015 @01:51PM (#50783099)

      Well, they "should" do that. But almost all prisons used one of two different services. Those services jacked up the rates, then kicked back a share of the profits to the prisons to ensure that they continued to have the business. The prisons were not the ones paying any per-minute fees. They don't care how much the prisoners end up paying, and they're unlikely to shop around for better service out of the goodness of their hearts.

  • 15 minute calls are now 1.65 where as before they were 1.65?

    • No, they used to be $14 a minute.

      • And many times these companies will charge the people their calling, ESPECIALLY if it's a cell phone. When I worked at AT&T as a CSR, I had many calls with repeated $15-$20 charges that came from various "prison call services" from the jailed persons family who suddenly had a $300 cell phone bill from talking to their incarcerated loved one for a few minutes.
  • not enough (Score:5, Insightful)

    by BradMajors ( 995624 ) on Thursday October 22, 2015 @01:08PM (#50782733)

    A simpler and fairer solution could have been the requirement that the price charged for inmate calls must equal the price charged for prison staff calls.

    • by cdrudge ( 68377 )

      So you want prisoners to continued to be screwed over, while also screwing over the prison staff as well?

    • Why are inmates charged in the first place? Their calls are already limited by prison rules, it would make sense for prison to pay for the calls just like the prison covers their other necessities. The prison itself is in a far better bargaining position and would be able to get fair rates from phone companies, thus fixing this market failure and resulting in greater economic efficiency.
    • Not really (Score:5, Insightful)

      by rsilvergun ( 571051 ) on Thursday October 22, 2015 @02:29PM (#50783445)
      Prison staff would just use their cell phone or (worst case) wait till their shift is over since, well, it's not like they're prisoners or anything. You're also assuming the wage slaves working for $15/hr at a prison have any pull, which is just silly.

      This is why I hate 'simple' solutions. The sound good but are almost always unworkable. Yours was a little easier to point out the problems with, try doing the same with something like Supply Side Economics...
      • How much does the prison itself pay for staff to make business calls, like for example to a supplier to order some stuff?

        • They're employees. They get paid to work there. Business expenses don't come out of their pay. Their pay is the lowest amount the owners can pay and still get employees. You think private prisons are mom and pop shops or something?
          • as "prison staff" instead of just "prison". So let me answer your point again:

            Still nothing. Private prisons are profit centers driven by graft and corruption, mostly by Dick Cheney (seriously, look it up, he's heavily invested in them and a substantial amount of his fortune is derived from them). The costs are just passed onto the tax payer. Worse, the entire _point_ of the system _is_ the costs. It's all there to raise more money for everyone dipping their beaks in. Want to raise the fees? Go right ahe
          • I'm not suggesting that employees do pay for business expenses. I'm suggesting that the company will seek the best deal for the communications services that it obtains for its own use, and should get the same deal for inmates' phones and recharge that price.

    • prison staff have cell phones, and why are they making personal calls on the work phone?

  • Good I guess (Score:5, Interesting)

    by MBGMorden ( 803437 ) on Thursday October 22, 2015 @01:15PM (#50782793)

    The story mentions prisons - I'm not sure if short-term jails are included in this but I hope so.

    While I've never personally had to make any calls, my sister was arrested (DUI) once, and being a nervous wreck was calling me - nearly hourly- until we got bail posted. The collect calls - often lasting no more than 2-3 minutes, were charged at a flat rate of $15 per call. A one night stay ended up costing me over $200 just in collect phone call charges before I eventually just had to tell her that I wouldn't accept any more calls.

    • Re:Good I guess (Score:5, Insightful)

      by MalleusEBHC ( 597600 ) on Thursday October 22, 2015 @02:08PM (#50783261)

      I was arrested for contempt of cop [wikipedia.org] once, and I had a similar experience. When I tried to call my family, they all told me that they got an automated recording with instructions to create an account and pay for the collect call to a cell phone. While they were trying to navigate this onerous system for the opportunity to pay exorbitant amounts of money to talk to me, I'm sitting in a jail cell wondering if I'm ever going to get a hold of them.

      Getting arrested is traumatic enough already, and the assholes trying to wring dollars out of a captive audience make it that much worse. Kudos to the FCC for taking a significant step to remedy the problem.

  • That's less than my pre-paid phone.
  • Now the FCC just needs to address egregious cell phone charges and egregious internet/ISP charges and TV/Cable company charges. Why should we have to pay extra for HD? Or for a cable box when we're already paying for cable? Why is the internet cost without TV from my cable provider like 80% of the cost of basic cable alone? And what about all those junk taxes, fees, charges, recovery fees, etc.? It's a huge set of scams.
    • Or for a cable box when we're already paying for cable?

      Or allowing every cable company an exemption to the CableCARD requirement. What's the point of mandating something when everyone gets an exemption like free candy?

      • What I want to know is, WTF happened to "any lawful device?!" (Other than the obvious answer -- FCC corruption -- that is.) There's no reason the Carterphone decision shouldn't apply to cable networks just as well as it does to phone networks.

        • Any lawful device is essentially what Cablecard was supposed to solve. The card handling the DRM that prevented non-subscribers from accessing channels they're not subscribed to. Instead of updating the standard to handle switched video properly, every cable company immediately wanted this as an excuse to drop CableCARD.

          At this point, though, we don't even have "bring any device" with cell phones. The carrier has to approve every device model, not just the FCC.

          • On the contrary; any lawful device is what ClearQAM solved! CableCard was the cable cartel's trojan horse to defeat it.

            • ClearQAM is fine for local channels - though even that is rarely unencrypted (but I'm an Internet-only subscriber, so I shouldn't have access anyway). It requires a lot more hardware functionality if you're a subscriber but don't have access to all channels. Rather than the old RF notch filter, you don't have to worry about any signal loss with encryption. Just give everyone all the signal and leave it up to the access control device.

              How do you keep an Internet-only cable subscriber from getting free HBO

              • How do you keep an Internet-only cable subscriber from getting free HBO without degrading your service?

                Don't know; don't care; not my problem. Maybe the answer is, "you don't!"

                The issue is that DRMing everything and effectively overturning Carterphone should not be an allowable "solution." If your business model conflicts with a good law, then it's your business model, not the law, that needs to change!

                • It's not business model or the law. It's hardware/technology.

                  I'm not a huge fan of DRM, but using it doesn't overturn Carterfone if CableCARD or equivalent is available. You don't complain about having to stick a SIM card in your cell phone. This is essentially the same thing.

                  • It's not business model or the law. It's hardware/technology.

                    Bull. Non-DRM'd cable TV worked just fine in the analog era. If switching to digital makes that use-case stop working, it just means that whoever designed the digital system fucked up. This is by no means something that "couldn't" be done -- that much is proven by the fact that it was done with analog -- it's just that the cable cartel chose not to do it because they don't give a shit about consumer rights, and the regulatory-captured FCC let them

                    • First of all, people didn't have cable TV lines hooked up to their house in the analog era. Second, premium channels were locked out with analog equivalent of DRM.

                      It's true that CableCARD went too far by most cable providers not allowing recording by default on any channels - even when the content companies didn't ask them to. It was totally possible for an HDHomerun CableCARD device to record as long as the record/copy flags were set to allow. The fact that they had this capability as part of the standa

                    • First of all, people didn't have cable TV lines hooked up to their house in the analog era

                      That is, if they weren't subscribers to cable TV.

                    • First of all, people didn't have cable TV lines hooked up to their house in the analog era.

                      Of course they did! How do you think cable TV worked in the '80s, '90s and early 2000s? Haven't you ever heard of an (analog) "cable-ready" TV [wikipedia.org]?

                      It's true that CableCARD went too far by most cable providers not allowing recording by default on any channels - even when the content companies didn't ask them to. It was totally possible for an HDHomerun CableCARD device to record as long as the record/copy flags were set to

                    • Of course they did! How do you think cable TV worked in the '80s, '90s and early 2000s?

                      I left out a few words. Did you see my follow-up comment? They didn't have lines hooked up if they weren't subscribers to TV. Now that's more commonplace (Internet-only subscribers).

                      No, CableCARD went too far by allowing the flag disabling recording to exist. Being on by default is beside the point.

                      Right, but the rest of the DRM on CableCARD is perfectly agreeable to me. And many markets did allow recording.

    • needs to be like airlines pricing law also hotels where the base rate must have all taxes and forced fees as part of it.

      Some ISP force you to rent there gateway it it's not part of the base rate.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 22, 2015 @01:40PM (#50782977)

    $8.00 in quarters for a 4 minute phone call once per week, when the facility was already bilking my insurance more than $500/day for me to be there. Absolute nonsense, worse than the prisons in the article were charging. I wish I'd been able to take a picture of that payphone and its rate card to be featured on the back of 2600.

    When you're down and out in America, that's when they'll fuck you the most.

  • by essbase_nerd ( 2677851 ) on Thursday October 22, 2015 @01:59PM (#50783179)

    Remember the 1990s, before everyone had a cell phone, and hotels charged around $2.00 for a local call, and $2.00 + $2.00/minute for domestic long distance?

    I do, I was a hotel general manager at the time, and it was common to see a $25, $50, even $100 dollars in long distance calls on a guest room folio. If the guest complained, we'd give them a 50% discount, and still make out like bandits. I say bandits, because we were practically robbing the guests. I hated it, but had no control over the company-wide phone contracts and required fees.

  • The call costs are proportional to staffing. This, in turn, is proportional to the number of phones available for prisoner use.

    I have family members who are on the corrections side of things, rather than the prisoner side of things.

    1. All calls must be monitored by a human.
    2. All calls involve a human operator asking the target of the call if they will accept the call.
    3. As the number of phones goes up, the number of humans you have to hire to do this simultaneously goes up.

    So the immediate consequence of

  • by WaffleMonster ( 969671 ) on Thursday October 22, 2015 @02:24PM (#50783399)

    Lawyers, monitoring/ankle bracelets, ignition interlocks, "bail bonds", calling. I talked to someone a few months ago running a prison phone system. The basic gist many jails farm management out to one of a few providers who charge obscene rates and get away with it because those running the prisons don't care and don't want to deal with it. The very same story constantly repeats itself in government purchasing and health care. When its not your money you unsurprisingly tend not to care.

    What is more egregious are stories I've heard first hand about ankle bracelets and how companies are able to get judges to basically demand a specific provider be used who unsurprisingly charge insane rates. Buy this or jail == $$$$$$$ profit $$$$$$$$

  • It's the first time in a long time I've heard us doing something that has a net positive outcome for prisoners. Americans just love to hurt and punish people that aren't their own, especially the lower castes. This sort of thing used to be politically unthinkable. I know Obama is done, but this sort of thing would normally sink the next Democrat's election campaign. Everyone's terrified of suffering the same fate as Dukakis. E.g. losing to someone who had no business winning because you were 'soft on crime'
  • Some bail bonds places take therm and they can only change the the max rate % of the bond.

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