Between a Rock and a Hard Rate: FCC Protects VoIP for Inmates
At a time when American incarceration rates are higher than they’ve ever been, one federal agency just delivered a huge victory for the ever-increasing U.S. prison population. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently passed a rule preventing inmate calling services (ICS) from blocking calls from prison that are routed through VoIP services, such as ConsCallHome (CCH), to make cheaper phone calls to their families and other loved ones. The order [LINK REDACTED DUE TO GOVT SHUT DOWN], passed Sept. 26, comes on the heels of another recent order [LINK] that established a “safe harbor” cap on rates charged by ICS companies.
Historically, inmates have often had their calls monitored and restricted to preapproved phone numbers. This provided a barrier to companies such as CCH, which operate by charging a low subscription fee to the families of inmates and then assigning a local VoIP number in the area where the inmate is imprisoned. This allows the inmate to call his or her family under local call rates, rather than the often outrageous long distance rates normally charged to inmates.
The FCC’s move was opposed by Texas-based ICS Securus, one of the leading providers of ICS services in the country. Securus argued that allowing access to such VoIP technology removes safety barriers and allows inmates to call others outside of prison without restrictions. Thus, the company routinely blocked outgoing calls that accessed such services.
However, the FCC disagreed, ruling that ICS providers must stop blocking such services because they do not pose the type of risk that Securus claims they do. Contrary to Securus’s claims, CCH-type services cannot be exploited by inmates, as the service is used by their families rather than the inmates themselves; inmates often do not even know they’re calling a CCH number.
In addition, the FCC ruled that ICS companies cannot charge inmates more than it actually costs to make phone calls. Though providers are free to set their own rates, the FCC set safe harbor limits at $0.18–$0.25 per minute, indicating that so long as companies set their rates within these limits, the FCC will presume they are legal.
This move is a huge win for inmates and their families. The FCC order cited a number of anecdotes describing inmates’ family members being charged as much as $25 for a 9-minute phone call. Such exorbitant rates obviously create a huge barrier to most inmates staying in touch with their families. It can become an impossible barrier for families where, for instance, the imprisoned person was the sole breadwinner in the family and is no longer generating an income, or is making $0.12 per hour working a prison job.
It’s not just a win for inmates, however. The FCC order further cites multiple studies finding that consistent contact with outside family members leads to lower recidivism rates among prison populations. This is a huge incentive for society as a whole, as lower recidivism of course tends to mean lower crime, lower taxes, and lower prison populations.