Illinois House Passes Bill On Prison Phone Call Pricing
May 5, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — An Illinois bill aimed at reducing the high cost of phone calls for prisoners and their families and preventing the state from continuing to profit from these calls passed the Illinois House yesterday. The measure, HB 6200, was sponsored by Rep. Carol Ammons, D-Urbana, who procured an impressive roster of supporters – The ACLU of Illinois, Prison and Neighborhood Arts Project and the NAACP Champaign County Branch.
Ammons’s bill arrives three weeks after the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the October, 2015 FCC ruling that (finally) capping exorbitant prison phone call costs. For many families with incarcerated loved ones, the steep price of prison phone calls — which ran as high as $14 a minute in some facilities — lead family members to drift apart because they simply cannot afford to keep in touch. And no, $14 per minute is not a typo. $14. Per. Minute.
For many of the more than 2.7 million children in the United States who have an incarcerated parent, phone calls are the only means to communicate with an absent parent (or parents). This is especially true for prisoners who are housed at facilities located far from their families.
In their October, 2015 ruling, the FCC observed:
These rates discourage communication between inmates and their families and larger support networks, which negatively impact the millions of children with an incarcerated parent, contribute to the high rate of recidivism in our nation’s correctional facilities, and increase the costs of our justice system.
Until recently, the costs and ancillary fees levied on prisoners and their families by Inmate Calling Service (ICS) providers was largely unregulated. An oligarchy comprised of three companies, GTL, Securus and CenturyLink (either directly or through their subsidiaries), control 90% of the state DOC market. They have taken full advantage of this regulatory vacuum by bilking their captive customers (and their families) for decades.
Prison phone contracts are based on a “commission” model, where the phone service provider pays a commission (kickback) to the contracting government agency, such as a state prison system or county jail. CNN reported in March that, “most prisons offer exclusive deals to phone service providers in exchange for astronomical commissions.”
In its October ruling, the FCC issued a scathing critique of ICS providers, calling them “a government-sponsored monopoly” and guilty of “charging rates that far exceed their costs.” Prison phone calls would be capped at 11 cents a minute (for all local and long distance calls) from state and federal prisons. Price caps for jail phone calls ranged from 14 cents to 22 cents a minute, depending on the size of the facility.
Prisoners’ advocacy organizations were thrilled by the new FCC guidelines, describing it as a “huge step forward” for prisoner’s rights. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the prison phone providers felt differently and sued, arguing that the ruling overstepped the commission’s authority.