Families to Benefit From New Cap on Prison Phone Rates

The highest communication authority in the U.S. voted Thursday to cap expensive phone calls to and from prisons and jails nationwide.
Inmates make phone calls at Maricopa County jail in Arizona. (Photo: Joshua Lott/Reuters)
Oct 22, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Every Tuesday, Devin D. Coleman looked forward to his weekly call with his grandma. Their phone date was special not just because he loved her but because Coleman was in prison, and every call to a family member helped keep him grounded and reminded him there was a life waiting for him after he served his sentence.

“She passed away before I was released,” Coleman told TakePart. “I wish I could’ve talked to her more, but due to the price of calls, I couldn’t. For me, it was vital to be able to talk to my family.”

Like many people who have served time behind bars, Coleman intimately understands how the high cost of calls made to and from prison can inhibit a family’s ability to stay in touch. But a vote on Thursday by the Federal Communications Commission that sets a lower cap on the price of prison phone calls will ease that burden. The ruling will go into effect in early 2016.

The historic vote marks a major victory for incarcerated people and the advocates who have fought alongside them to stem the high costs of prison phone calls charged by companies such as Global Tel Link and Securus Technologies for the last decade. The decision sets a $1.65 cap on the vast majority of 15-minute calls to and from inmates—calls that used to cost as much as $2.96 for intrastate calls and $3.15 for out-of-state conversations, based on a 2013 ruling.

“Reducing the cost of these calls measurably increases the amount of contact between inmates and their loved ones, making an important contribution to the criminal justice reforms sweeping the nation,” the commission said in a statement released after Thursday’s vote.

Studies have shown that affordable phone calls help inmates succeed after their release by enabling them to maintain connections to their families and communities.

In its statement, the commission also announced it is seeking comments on how to curb the costs of video visitation services in prisons, which have risen in popularity and in some cases replaced in-person visits.

When the news about the FCC’s decision broke, Coleman said he almost cried. He has been working on reducing prison phone call rates as an organizer with the New Florida Majority, a grassroots social justice organization, since 2012.

“I have a friend who’s incarcerated right now, and it’s tough for him to call home because of the cost,” Coleman said. “Now I can tell his sister and mom the cost is going down. It’ll be a glimmer of hope for a lot of families and will have an immediate impact on the relationships and bonds that can be rebuilt.”