High Cost of Inmates’ Phone Calls May End

The Federal Communications Commission will decide next month whether to limit rates and service fees for phone calls made by prison and jail inmates, a senior agency official said Wednesday.

The commission is seeking to regulate the $1.2 billion phone industry serving prisons and jails, which has been criticized for overcharging inmates’ families.

Rates for phone calls from jails and prisons are typically far more expensive than normal commercial charges and can cost as much as $14 a minute. Service fees often add another 40 percent, resulting in phone bills as high as $500 a month, inmates’ families and prison advocacy groups say.

The proposed rules would impose a rate of 11 cents a minute on state or federal prison calls and cap the cost of calls made from local jails at 14 to 22 cents a minute, based on the size of the jail.

Those amounts generally fall between the rate of about 5 to 7 cents a minute that inmates’ families and prison advocates sought and the rate of 20 cents a minute that companies in the prison phone industry proposed.

Alex Friedmann, associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center, which has long pushed for lower phone rates in jails and prisons, said Wednesday that the F.C.C. proposal did not go far enough.

“The changes will benefit prison families, but not to the extent that they could, and not to the extent that we had hoped that they would,” he said.

Jails and prisons around the country have in recent years become financially reliant on revenue received from prison phone companies, which pay millions of dollars in concession fees, called commissions, to win exclusive contracts.

High concession fees drive up the cost of phone calls because the companies say they must try to recover their investment.

In 2013, $460 million in concession fees was paid to jails and prisons, and to state, county and local governments, according to the F.C.C. The fees are legal and are used to pay a range of expenses for jails and prisons, as well as local governments.

The current F.C.C. proposal — part of a plan by Tom Wheeler, the commission’s chairman, and Mignon L. Clyburn, one of the F.C.C.’s five commissioners — does not seek to abolish commissions because its ability to do so is legally questionable, said the senior F.C.C. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the proposal had not yet been read by each member of the commission.

The proposal, expected to be voted on at the commission’s Oct. 22 meeting, would cap calling rates at 22 cents a minute for jails with fewer than 349 inmates, at 16 cents for jails with 350 to 999 inmates, and at 14 cents for jails with more than 1,000 inmates.

All state and federal prisons would be allowed to charge a maximum of 11 cents a minute.

Jails are local facilities that house inmates sentenced for misdemeanor offenses or who are awaiting trial or sentencing. Prison inmates have generally been tried and sentenced for serious crimes. While nearly three-quarters of inmates are in state or federal prisons, jails often have higher costs for phone calls because of the high turnover among the inmate population.

The proposed rate limits would apply to calls that are prepaid or made with a debit card, which account for about 90 percent of all calls, according to the senior F.C.C. official. Collect calls from jails would be capped at 49 cents a minute, and at 14 cents a minute from prisons.

The rates were devised, the official said, after a review of industry costs. The industry is dominated by the Global Tel-Link Corporation and Securus Technologies. Representatives from those companies could not be reached for comment.

The proposed rates will allow the companies to make a profit, the official said, and allow jails and prisons to pay for security costs associated with monitoring calls and escorting prisoners to and from phones.

The plan also calls for all service fees to end or be capped.

For example, there would be a $3 fee limit for paying bills over the phone or on the web; a fee capped at $5.95 to pay through a company representative; and a $2 limit on fees for any client receiving a bill on paper. All other fees, excluding taxes and regulatory costs, would be prohibited.

Companies charge as much as $9.50 to open an account, $4.75 to add money to an account and $2.99 a month to maintain an account. Bills are commonly paid by inmates’ families.

If approved, the rules would be put into place early in 2016.