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And now this story -- it costs a lot of money to talk on the phone to someone in jail or in prison. In fact, it costs so much that the phone bills have drawn the attention of federal regulators. The Federal Communications Commission is set to vote tomorrow to limit the price of a phone call, and the prison phone industry is poised to fight back. NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Inmates and their families are - all joking aside - pretty much the definition of a captive market. Just about every jail and prison signs an exclusive contract with one telephone company, and if you don't like its rates, you're out of luck.
MIGUEL SAUCEDO: I would say monthly it would be about 70 to $100 that I spend.
ROSE: Miguel Saucedo is a PhD student and community activist in Chicago. His brother Luis is in prison in Illinois, where he's been incarcerated since 1996. For close to 20 years Miguel Saucedo and his family have been saving up money to talk to Luis on the phone.
SAUCEDO: We're cutting off necessities just so we can keep this communication going.
ROSE: Would you have a guess of how much your family has paid overall in the time that he has been incarcerated?
SAUCEDO: It would have to be over 10 - $20,000.
ROSE: For most of us, those phone calls would cost just a few cents per minute, but for inmates and their families, phone rates and fees can be many times higher. Thirteen dollars for a 15-minute call is common.
MIGNON CLYBURN: I see the clearest most egregious case of market failure ever.
ROSE: That's FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who's been working on this issue for years.
CLYBURN: This is a major cost that families pay, and these families are the most economically vulnerable in our nation.
ROSE: Activists have been urging the FCC to do something about this for more than a decade. Two years ago, the commission moved to place caps on interstate calling rates, and tomorrow the commission will vote on a proposal to cap the rates and fees that inmates' families pay for all calls. But the prison phone industry says that's a mistake.
BRIAN OLIVER: It's financially borderline catastrophic.
ROSE: Brian Oliver is the CEO of Global Tel Link, the biggest player in the market for prison phone calls. Oliver says the FCC's proposal would slash his revenues by as much as half. If the commission really wants to do something about prison phone rates, he says it should go after what are known in the business as site commissions, what activists call kickbacks to the county sheriff or state corrections department. Oliver says these site commissions can account for as much as 60 or 70 cents of every dollar an inmate's family spends.
OLIVER: Rates are high because people want commissions. And the people who set the rules, the counties and the states who want that income, directly create the high rates. When there are no site commissions, the evidence is clear; rates become extremely affordable.
ROSE: Some states, including New York, Ohio, and Rhode Island, have already outlawed site commissions. In those places, the FCC says prison phone rates are down and call volumes are up. But the people who run jails and prisons defend site commissions. Jonathan Thompson is CEO of the National Sheriffs Association. He says sheriffs have to make sure that inmate calls don't create a threat to the community, and that takes money.
JONATHAN THOMPSON: So you're monitoring that phone call. That takes manpower. That takes time. We're looking at upping the number of calls - right? - but yet not increasing the capabilities or the resources to go with it. That is a huge challenge for sheriffs.
ROSE: Thompson says some sheriffs will likely stop allowing inmate phone calls at all if the FCC votes the cap rates. But regulators insist the proposed caps would still leave counties and states with enough money to cover their security costs. And activists like Miguel Saucedo say rate reform might actually save states and counties money in the form of lower recidivism rates among people like his brother, Luis.
SAUCEDO: Us having that line of communication is vital for him to rehabilitate. And for me to cut that line off for him and say, sorry, Luis, I can't answer your phone calls this month is not imaginable. It cannot happen.
ROSE: Saucedo applauds the FCC for finally moving to regulate prison phone rates. But he and other activists may have to wait even longer to see any real-world effects. The prison phone industry is expected to challenge the proposed caps in court. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.
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