FCC should work to reduce rates of inmate calling services

By: Donna Epps

Many telecommunications issues are really complicated and only interesting to a handful of policy-oriented folks. But once in a while an issue arises that has easily understandable implications for all of society. High rates for inmate calling services is one of these issues.

Inmate calling services (ICS) are provided by private telecommunications companies that contract with Departments of Correction (DOC). The way it usually works is that inmates make collect calls from detention facilities, and the inmates’ families pay the bill. The ICS providers set things up on the prison end of the call and make other arrangements. Once selected by the DOC, the ICS provider is the sole payphone provider available to inmates and their families for such services.

Unfortunately, some ICS providers charge extremely high rates for these calls – rates of a dollar a minute are not unheard of, so the cost of one conversation can equal that of a family’s regular monthly phone bill. The FCC opened a proceeding to examine the ICS providers’ billing practices after hearing the concerns of the families paying these extraordinary bills. The record in this proceeding makes clear that an inmate’s regular telephone and other communication with family aids in the inmate’s transition back into the community post-incarceration and thus lowers recidivism. As a result, there is a compelling public interest in ensuring that call rates are reasonable in this unique market.

Our prior experience in this market (we provided inmate calling services until 2007) gives Verizon a historical perspective on how this one-of-a-kind market functions and where there may be opportunities for meaningful Commission action. So today we filed comments with the FCC [.PDF] that urge the agency to examine the issues and take action. This isn’t the kind of thing we usually weigh in on with formal comments, but it’s such an important issue that affects everyone. The FCC has an opportunity to help lower rates for ICS and facilitate more inmate-to-family communications, which benefits all of us. 

From what we’ve seen in the FCC’s record on this issue, these high calling rates usually result from the fact that some public departments of correction require ICS providers to pay the DOCs a high commission in order to win the service contract. The winning ICS providers pass the costs of the high commissions on to the inmates’ families in the form of high calling rates. While the DOCs may have good intentions and do use a competitive bidding process to award calling contracts, the bidding tends to revolve around the amount of a commission the ICS provider is willing to pay the prisons, rather than the calling rates the ICS provider will charge  consumers. In other words, the bidder with the lowest calling rates is simply not more likely to win the contract. And since the contracts are exclusive contracts, the inmates’ call recipients – usually the inmates’ families, who often are economically disadvantaged – have no choice but to fund the large commissions.

To be clear, Verizon is not suggesting that there is anything wrong with commissions or that all commissions, regardless of size, should be eliminated. We understand that DOCs may use commissions to fund beneficial inmate services that may not otherwise receive funding. However, we don’t think inmates’ families should bear the brunt of all this by paying unreasonably high calling rates.

The Commission should move quickly in its consideration of the record and, consistent with its jurisdiction, to take decisive action to reduce the high calling rates.

Donna Epps directs Verizon’s domestic public policy team, as well as relationships with our external partners. Prior to her current position, Ms. Epps worked in Verizon’s Federal Regulatory Affairs group where she developed and advocated Verizon’s federal regulatory policy positions on key issues facing the communications industry, with an emphasis on issues related to competition, economic regulation, and consumer protection.