Earlier this month, the three current members of the Federal Communications Commission voted on a question that had gone unanswered for a decade: How much should prisoners and their families have to pay to talk on the phone with each other? By a 2-to-1 vote, the commission decided to move forward withrules that will dramatically lower the rates of such calls.
On Friday I spoke with the FCC's acting chairwoman Mignon Clyburn about the commission's decision and what it will mean for those who are incarcerated and their families. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
Can you begin by explaining what was the issue with prison phone rates? What was the issue the commission was trying to solve?
Last year, I had a chance to meet with a number of family members, friends, and legal representatives of inmates, and they affirmed to me that for more than 10 years, they have been urging the courts and the FCC to ease the burden of the exorbitant prison-phone calling rates. They told me the stories of thousands of families who were making unbelievable sacrifices, trade-offs that were jeopardizing their everyday existence, to keep in touch with their inmate family and friends: They were not buying medicine; they were not buying clothing. And they asked the FCC to, at long last, bring about a just and reasonable rate regime.
And so why were these rates so expensive? What were people paying for?
The structure [of the prison-phone market] is a bit different. It's not like the commercial market in which we engage. What happens is, the facilities put out a request for bids, and various companies -- currently the market is made up of a few providers and two providers have more than 80 percent of the market -- would answer the bid. The facilities would evaluate the bids, and what they were looking at was what was the most attractive bid for them. What that often included was a package, so to speak, that included commissions -- commissions that we have found in the record to be as high as 60 percent, and one or two examples even eclipsed that. And so what you would find was a rate regime that included that, on top of the other security protocols and the costs of doing business. This made for a very expensive regime that we addressed.