By Ronald Fraser
First published on May 26, 2009 at 7:09 pm

Prison inmates who use the telephone to maintain strong family ties are better prepared to rebuild their lives upon returning home. Why then do Pennsylvania elected officials allow price-gouging phone companies to drive prison telephone rates sky high, isolating inmates from the outside world?

The cost of long-distance calling has dropped drastically for most people in Pennsylvania, but not for families of inmates. According to the Federal Communications Commission, domestic interstate calls across the nation were billed at just 6 cents per minute as of 2006.

Yet the Kalamazoo, Mich.-based Campaign to Promote Equitable Telephone Charges reports that the families of Pennsylvania inmates pay Securus Technologies, Pennsylvania's current prison phone-service monopoly, much more.

For a 15-minute call, including per-call and usage charges, the campaign calculates that inmate families in Pennsylvania pay 43 cents per minute for intra-state long-distance collect calls and a whopping 84 cents per minute for interstate collect calls. A similar interstate call using a debit, or pre-paid, card costs about 65 cents per minute.

In other states, inmate families pay less. For 15-minute collect interstate calls inmates pay 12 cents in Florida, 15 cents in Michigan and New York, 17 cents in Missouri and 18 cents in New Hampshire.

The high Pennsylvania rates include "commissions" (a.k.a. kickbacks) negotiated during the contracting process and paid to state prison operators as a percentage of prison-phone revenues. Eager to win lucrative contracts, competing phone companies sweeten their bids by offering generous kickbacks, some as high as 65 percent.

Only seven states -- Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Oklahoma and Rhode Island -- do not accept such commissions from phone companies, and they pass the savings on to inmates and their families.

While competition among phone companies in the open market drives long-distance calling rates down, competition in the prison telephone market, thanks to greedy phone companies and uncaring prison operators, drives rates up for inmates and their families.

Studies on file with the FCC show that nationally, including special security features for prison phones, it costs phone companies only 12 to 17 cents per minute to provide interstate collect calling and between six and 12 cents per minute to provide interstate debit calling. These estimates include transport and termination costs and six cents for collect calls to cover billing and uncollectible costs.

It's not that no one has noticed the prison telephone rip-off. The 2006 Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons reported that inmate phone rates are "extraordinarily high" and that lower rates "support family and community bonds." Even the American Bar Association has formally called for inmate calls to be set at the "lowest possible rates." The American Correctional Association says sound correctional management includes reasonably pr iced phone services.

Perhaps the low rates in Florida, Michigan and New York will shame phone companies and prison operators in Pennsylvania and other states into ending their abuse of prison inmates and their families.

But just in case these phone companies and prison officials are, in fact, shameless, some inmate family members have filed a formal proposal asking the FCC to impose a reasonable interstate phone rate in all U.S. prisons -- interstate collect calls could be no more than 25 cents per minute and interstate debit calls no more than 20 cents per minute. The proposal also asks that the debit calling card option be provided in all U.S. prisons.

The FCC proposal addresses only interstate long distance calls. However, if the FCC sets lower interstate rates, this would pressure states from coast-to-coast to adjust downward their intra-state long-distance rates.

It is time to end telephone price gouging in U.S. prisons. If phone companies in Florida, Michigan, New York and Missouri can provide inmates with reasonable rates, so can Pennsylvania. Doing so would help strengthen prisoners' family ties, and make our communities safer.

Ronald Fraser writes about public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization (

First published on May 26, 2009 at 7:09 pm
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