FCC trying to stop phone companies that rip off prisoners' families

The private phone companies that charge prisoners' families up to up to $12.95 for 15 minutes' conversation are not the worst prison profiteers, but they're pretty high up in the rogues' gallery of greedy, immoral predators who view the poorest and most vulnerable Americans as penned-up wallets.

The prison privateers are abetted by the prisons themselves: they kick back a huge share of their loot to the prisons who employ them, putting the prisons in the morally hazardous position of making more money by interfering with inmates' rehabilitation.

After 14 years of trying, the FCC has finally introduced a regulation capping the rates that prison phone companies can charge, but the fight's not over yet. The Republican Commissioners have argued that this is outside of the FCC's jurisdiction, which has opened the door to a challenge by Global Tel-Link and Securus, the two biggest leeches on prisoners' families finances.

Peter Wagner, the executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, one of the groups that has been pushing for rate regulations, has fought to eliminate site commissions in the past. But he recently decided it wasn't worth the effort, since companies have other ways to throw money around to win contracts, such as donations to local sheriffs. "We see no benefit to the FCC engaging in a protracted game of whack-a-mole when the Commission can instead reduce the influence of all of these market-distorting payments simply by putting in place a very low ceiling for rates and fees," he wrote in a letter to the FCC this summer. Wagner says he is satisfied with the rules the FCC approved Thursday.

Not Global Tel-Link and Securus, the two largest providers of phone service at correctional facilities. The assertion by the Republican commissioners that the FCC doesn't have the authority to regulate rates would provide grounds for a legal challenge, and it seems that the companies will be looking for such grounds. In a statement, Brian Oliver, Global Tel-Link's chief executive, called the rules disastrous. "This action creates significant financial instability in the industry and ultimately hurts inmates and their families—the very people the FCC set out to help," he said. Securus argued that the rate caps are below its costs of doing business and said it would appeal to the D.C. Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, while also asking for a stay on the FCC's order.

Is This the End of Sky-High Prison Phone Call Rates?
[Joshua Brustein/Bloomberg]

(Image: FE UX Offsite Dec 2014, Jennifer Carole, CC-BY-SA)