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Curbing prison payphone costs: FCC's Clyburn sounds off on new petition

Phone rates should be 'just and reasonable' for all Americans with no exceptions, says commissioner
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FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn met with two citizens on Monday who are petitioning the FCC to help lower the cost of calls from U.S. prisons, most made from payphones managed by carriers like CenturyLink's (NYSE: CTL) Embarq, AT&T (NYSE: T) and privately-owned GTL via government contracts.

The fees that families pay to talk to loved ones currently incarcerated were high enough to lead to several families filing a class-action lawsuit more than 10 years ago and eventually petitioning the FCC to regulate prison payphone rates.

Spending more than $1 per minute to pay for a collect call from a traditional payphone located in the same country sounds exorbitant, but it's a reality faced by many of the families of the more than two million people incarcerated in U.S. prisons, according to Clyburn in a statement issued after meeting with Martha Wright and her grandson, Ulandis Forte and screening the documentary, Middle of Nowhere.

"The cost of calling from prisons is over and above the basic monthly phone service families of prisoners already pay, and in many cases families will spend significantly more for receiving calls from prison," Clyburn said in the statement.

In addition to a connection fee between $3 and $4, families pay per-minute fees of up to $0.89 for interstate long-distance service. This results in a single 15-minute interstate phone call costing as much as $17, according to the statement.

"For those families, they will spend an additional $34 over and above their basic monthly phone rate to speak twice a month for a total of 30 minutes. Many cannot afford this," said Clyburn.

Fees to call family or friends from prison vary from state to state. For example, the state of Texas charges call recipients local rates of $0.26 per minute and interstate long distance rates of $0.48 per minute. There's also a $2.50 monthly fee, and if the family wants to pay that fee by credit card, an additional $5.00 is tacked on.

A study published in April 2011 by Prison Legal News detailed the rates and fees charged in various states.

A CenturyLink spokesperson said the carrier is currently reviewing the proposals.

The APCC (American Public Communications Council), which advocates for public communications providers (particularly providers of payphone services), explains in a FAQ on its site that "The rates for collect calls from corrections facilities can be higher than normal collect rates because of the additional costs associated with the specialized equipment and features required to control fraud and to allow the corrections facility administration a certain degree of control over inmate activity. These rates have become an issue not because of what PSPs are charging, but rather because of recent rate increases by certain long distance carriers who set the end user prices for long distance inmate collect calls."

Still, Clyburn indicated in her statement that the fee issue is worth consideration by the FCC.

"It is the Commission's responsibility to ensure that interstate phone rates are just and reasonable, and we have an obligation to ensure that basic, affordable phone service is available to all Americans, including low-income consumers," Clyburn said. "Incarcerated individuals and their loved ones should not be the exceptions here, and as watchdogs of the public interest, this Commission must and should act expeditiously."

For more:
- see the news release (PDF)

Related articles:
Bell Canada, Bell Aliant ask for regulatory permission to raise payphone fees
New York City converts payphones to free Wi-Fi hotspots
FairPoint to sell off its Northern New England payphone operations
Embarq Payphone completes Texas Criminal Justice phone system installation

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