It costs a lot of money to talk by phone to someone behind bars, so much that those bills have drawn the attention of federal regulators. The Federal Communications Commission is set to vote today to limit the price of prison phone calls, NPR reports. “We’re cutting off necessities, just so we can keep this communication going,” says Miguel Saucedo, a Ph.D. student and community activist in Chicago. His brother Luis is in prison in Illinois, where he has been incarcerated since 1996. For almost 20 years, The Saucedo family have been setting aside money to talk to Luis on the phone, more than $10,000. For most of us, those phone calls would cost just a few cents per minute. For inmates and their families, phone rates and fees can be many times higher, often $13 for a 15-minute call.
“I see the clearest, most egregious case of market failure ever,” says FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. “This is a major cost that families pay. And these families are the most economically vulnerable in our nation.” Inmates and their families are pretty much the definition of a captive market. Most jails and prisons sign an exclusive contract with one telephone company. For more than a decade, activists have been pushing the FCC to regulate those contracts. Two years ago, the commission capped interstate calling rates. Today, it votes on a proposal to cap the rates and fees for all calls. The prison phone industry is poised to fight back. “It’s financially borderline catastrophic,” says Brian Oliver of Global Tel*Link, the biggest player in the prison call markets. He says the FCC plan would slash his revenues by as much as half. He wants the FCC to go after site commissions, what activists call kickbacks to the county sheriff or state corrections department. Oliver says site commissions can account for as much as 60 or 70 cents of every dollar an inmate’s family spends.