In an editorial, the New York Times calls on the Federal Communications Commission to rein in telephone companies that, in many states, charge inmates “spectacularly high” rates for long-distance calls. Members of Congress and civil rights groups are pushing the FCC to act on the problem, which has been widely recognized for nearly a decade. The paper says it is time “to break up what amount to monopolies and ensure that prisoners across the country have access to reasonably priced interstate telephone service.”
The calls are expensive because they are placed through independent telephone companies that pay the state a “commission” — essentially a legalized kickback — that ranges from 15 percent to 60 percent either as a portion of revenue, a fixed upfront fee or a combination of both. According to a new report by the Prison Policy Initiative, a research group based in Massachusetts, a 15-minute call can cost the family as much as $17. New York State banned the kickbacks several years ago and required its prison telephone vendor to provide service at the lowest possible cost to the inmates and their families. Service is similarly inexpensive and easily managed in federal prisons.