WASHINGTON, D.C. — As part of its mandate to ensure reasonable rates for all Americans, the Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to cap rates for inmate phone calls in prisons and jails.
“With today’s action, we will provide material relief to nearly two million families with loved ones behind bars,” said Tom Wheeler, FCC chairman, in a statement released Oct. 22.
According to a statement released by the federal agency the move is an attempt to not only ensure access for inmates, “some of society’s most vulnerable,” but to protect those on the outside who often bear the financial burden of rates as high as $14 per minute in some prisons.
The new regulations cap rates at 11 cents per minute for all local and long-distance calls from state and federal prisons.
The rate for jails ranges from 14 to 22 cents per minutes according to its size, since costs are higher for those institutions.
Commissioners in favor of the regulation cited the positive impact staying connected with the outside world has on those incarcerated.
“While contact between their inmates and their loved ones has been shown to reduce the rate of recidivism, high inmate calling rates have made that contact unaffordable for many families, who often live in poverty,” Mark Wigfield, a FCC spokesperson, said in a statement.
In 2013 the commission capped rates for interstate debit and prepaid calls at 21 cents per minute and began to study cost data from Inmate Call Service providers.
The vote passed 3 to 2, with dissenting commissioners claiming that the regulations exceeded the scope of the FCC’s authority.
“The truth is that each of us is paying a heavy price for what is now a predatory, failed market regime,” Mignon Clyburn, a FCC commissioner who voted in favor of the rate caps, said in a statement.
“None of us would consider ever paying $500 a month for a voice-only service where calls are dropped for seemingly no reason, where fees and commissions could be as high at 60 percent per call and, if we are not careful, where a four-minute call could cost us a whopping $54.”
The order also caps service fees applied to the calls and prohibits ancillary charges and mandatory minimum payments, which the FCC said can increase a call’s cost by nearly 40 percent.
Flat-rate call charges, such as charging a flat rate for a call up to 15 minutes regardless of actual call duration, were banned.
To monitor compliance, ICS providers will be required to file data annually with information such as rates, fees, site commission payments, and must disclose rates and fees to consumers.
Inmate phone calls are a source of revenue for Surry County through commissions established with contracted service provider Pay-Tel Communications, Inc.
The county receives 40-percent commission on local and out-of-state long-distance calls, and no commission for in-state long-distance calls.
Lieutenant Randy Shelton, supervisor of the Surry County Detention Center, said about $22,000 had been brought in so far in 2015 through those commissions, which goes into the county general fund.
“It’s a small fraction but it helps,” said Shelton, who was relieved the agency didn’t eliminate the commissions, a move the FCC had considered.
The current rates at the Surry County Detention Center are close to the new rates established by the FCC, which take effect six months after their publication in the Federal Register in jails and 90 days in prisons.
With only about 125 beds, the county jail comes in at the small end of the FCC’s rate structure, which limits rates to 22 cents per minute for debit and prepaid calls in jails with up to 349 inmates.
Each dorm within the jail has a Pay-Tel phone, the use of which is a privilege for inmates.
Inmates can pay for phone calls through their commissary account or someone outside can set up an account online to pay for the service.
For all local calls, the rate is a flat fee of $1.71 for up to ten minutes. If fewer than ten minutes are used, the fee still applies. The call cuts off at ten minutes.
At about 17 cents per minute, these calls average a lower per-minute cost than the cap set by the FCC. However, flat-fee calls were banned.
For in-state long-distance calls, the price is a $1.85 connection fee and 60 cents per minute.
For out-of-state long distance calls, after a $3 connection fee, inmates are charged 21 cents per minute and those paying from outside the jail are charged 25 cents per minute.
Without knowing yet how the contract with Pay-Tel will change, Shelton said its not clear how the county’s revenue will be affected.
“A reasonable rate is a good thing,” he said, although he doesn’t think the reduced rates will lead to more inmate phone calls.
“I’ve done this for 20 years,” he said. “I don’t care what the rates are, they’re going to make the phone calls.”
Shelton noted that the phones are important to officers as well, as they help with security and are a valuable tool for maintaining order.
“If you’re raising Cain you lose privileges,” he said.
Shelton expressed concern that the lower rates will cause the service companies to go out of business, leaving the county to fend for itself.
Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.