A protesters sign during a rally outside Green Bay’s prison. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Wisconsin is entering the holiday season, and that goes for residents who are incarcerated across the state, too. People spending the holidays behind bars who have loved ones to reach out to face high costs for making calls. A new Prison Policy Initiative report took a look at the average costs to make a call from jails across the country. At $3.00, making a call from a Wisconsin jail is more expensive than over two dozen other states. Yet, according to the report, the cost was equal to the national average as of late 2021.
“There has been significant progress on reducing prison and jail calling charges since advocates began mobilizing around this issue more than two decades ago,” the report states. Back in 2008, costs for prison calls made to people within the same state where the prison was located neared $6. If you wanted to make a call out-of-state, the costs could exceed $9. In 2014, however, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) capped out-of-state rates at $3. Jails weren’t much better. In-state jail calls exceeded $6 in 2015. Out-of-state jail calls, however, have remained flat since 2016.
Costs for in-state calls from jails have declined since 2016, as prisons started dropping costs. “Within a few years — largely because of pressure from family members — state prisons lowered their in-state rates as well,” the report found. “In locally-run jails, where family organizing is more difficult and the administrators often less aggressive negotiators, the too-high costs of in-state calls were much slower to catch up, but have made tremendous progress in the last few years.”
Several strategies were utilized to bring down costs state-by-state. States can regulate the price of calls that start and end within the state, coupled with the FCC’s own caps. States are also allowed to set caps on ancillary fees lower than those set by the FCC, though California is the only state to have taken this step. Prohibiting site commissions, or “kickbacks,” as the report describes, from telecom providers and providing agency-sponsored calls, have also helped.
While progress has been made over time, much more has yet to occur. Just three companies make up 88% of the jail and prison phone market, according to the Prison Policy Initiative report. Many jails across the country also charge more for in-state calls than the FCC allows for out-of-state calls. The Prison Policy Initiative report identified 11 jails in Wisconsin which are guilty of this practice.
The report presents several recommendations for federal and local government to pursue. It recommends that Congress pass the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act, which would authorize the FCC to set “just and reasonable rates” for all calls made from correctional facilities. Reforming fees supporting the Universal Service Fund could also reduce out-of-state calls by the current rate of 33%. The FCC could also regulate the cost of video calling from prison and jails, and stop prison phone companies from charging multiple transaction fees for a single payment transaction. Companies that don’t comply with requirements instituted in 2015 to “clearly and conspicuously” disclose their rates on their websites may also be penalized by the FCC. The report further recommends that the FCC investigate whether companies are getting away with charging in-state rates for calls that should be considered out-of-state, lower caps on per-minute phone rates, and lower caps on ancillary fees.
Lastly, state governments have a role to play as well. The report recommends that legislation be passed to provide agency-sponsored calls for people within jails and prisons. States could also direct the Public Utilities Commission to cap rates and fees for in-state calls at amounts lower than 21 cents per minute, which were set by the FCC for out-of-state calls. Contracts can also be formulated to ensure costs are consistent, and that counties experience the maximum economic benefit possible.
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