The FCC can finally hammer predatory prison phone call companies, thanks to just-passed bill
A brand-new law, which is still waiting for the president’s signature, will allow the Federal Communications Commission to regulate rates in the notoriously predatory industry of prison calling. Companies may decide to stop making solid products at a reasonable price under the threat of being required to do so. This will open up the market for a more compassionate, forward-thinking generation to offer their services.
Prison calling system are dependent on the state and prison system and have generally run the gamut of good to shockingly poor .. Companies were literally held captive by their customers, so they had no reason to innovate. Financial models that involved kickbacks to the states and prisons incentivized income at any cost.
Inmates routinely pay exorbitant rates for simple services such as phone calls and video (an upsell) and have even had their visitation rights revoked, making paid calls the only option. This particular financial burden falls heavily on people of color and those who have low incomes. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry.
It’s been like this for a long while, and Mignon Clyburn, former FCC commissioner, spent many years trying to change it. When I talked with her in 2017, before she left the agency, she called inmate calling “the clearest, most glaring type of market failure I’ve ever seen as a regulator.” It was an issue she spent years working on, but she gave a lot of credit to Martha Wright-Reed, a grandmother who had organized and represented the fight to bring reform to the system right up until she died.
Today’s bill is named after Martha Wright-Reed. It is a simple bill , that gives the FCC the power to “ensure just and reasonable charges telephone and advanced communication services in correctional or detention facilities.” This bill makes minor but significant amendments to the Communications Act of 1934,, which established the FCC. It is regularly updated for this purpose. (The bill passed both the House and Senate. President Biden will sign it soon after the festivities surrounding the spending bill, Volodymyr Zilenskyy’s holiday visit, and the holiday address have ended. )
” The FCC has been working hard for years to address this terrible problem. However, we have been limited in our ability to address calls made within a state’s boundaries. “Today, Senators Duckworth, Portman, and their bipartisan coalition, gave the FCC the authority to close the glaring, painful and detrimental loopholes in our phones rate rules to incarcerated persons.” (She also thanked Wright and Clyburn. )
Free Press has collected a number of other comments from interested parties, all lauding the legislation for curbing “carceral profiteering” and generally benefiting inmates rather than continuing to treat them like a source of labor or easy cash.
While it is great that costs will drop as soon as the FCC can create and pass a rule regarding the matter, the impact will likely be more than just savings.
Most companies today will see a reduction in their revenues and increased scrutiny from the FCC. The FCC requires reports and may take any other actions it deems necessary to enforce the new rules. It wouldn’t surprise if many of these companies decided to leave while the going is good.
Regulation in a space like this that has been dominated for many years by legacy providers may cause a change of guard. This is something we have seen with some states adopting new models like Ameelio. They started the startup as a way of sending postcards to prisoners for free. But soon, they had developed a modern digital video calling infrastructure which is far more affordable and easier to use than the legacy ones.
Now operating in three states. Ameelio can also serve as a basis for activities such as education and legal advocacy within prison facilities. The cost is lower and access is much easier. (As the founders discovered, they went on to create Emerge . )
A group of shady businesses in a hurry leave means a market opportunity for states as they scramble to find providers. Ameelio will no doubt be looking to fill some of these gaps, but it is likely that other companies will step in to help.
The prison system we have needs to be reformated. But it will happen slowly, as we see here.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.