To talk to her boyfriend on the telephone every day, Nanakuli resident Talitha Ani pays nearly $300 a month.
Normally, the calls would cost a fraction of that, but Ani’s boyfriend is locked up in the Saguaro Correctional Center, an Arizona prison where more than a quarter of Hawaii’s inmates are housed, so she can’t shop around for a cheaper plan.
Dealing with Global Tel*Link, an Alabama-based company that runs Saguaro’s phone system, is her only choice.
For out-of-state calls, Global Tel*Link charges 21 cents to 25 cents a minute — $3.15 to $3.75 for a 15-minute call. And, every time the money is deposited into the prison phone account — which can only be done in increments of $25 — the company also takes a $5.95 fee.
Inmates housed in Hawaii’s prisons and jails get a different deal, but not necessarily a better one.
According to the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, inmates are charged a $1.95 flat rate for local calls, while calls to neighbor islands cost $1.45 to start, with each minute adding another 9 cents to 14 cents. Hawaiian Telcom, which runs the phone system, also charges a fee of up to $9.75 every time the phone account needs to be reloaded.
The steep rates and fees are the norm in the multi-billion-dollar prison phone industry dominated by the companies backed by private-equity firms.
“The situation sets me back sometimes, but it’s important for me to keep in contact because (Saguaro inmates are) so far away. It’s good for them to know that their families are there for them.” — Talitha Ani
But the Federal Communications Commission voted late last month to take sweeping new steps to dramatically lower the cost, completing a years-long effort to correct what some top officials have called an “egregious case of market failure” in the prison phone business.
When the new regulations kick in next year, the maximum cost of all local and long-distance calls from prison will be capped at 11 cents a minute — $1.65 for a 15-minute call. In jails, the cost will range from 14 cents to 22 cents a minute, depending on the number of people in the facility.
The FCC’s action builds on the steps it took in August 2013 to cap the cost on all out-of-state prison calls at 21 cents to 25 cents a minute, a move it says has reduced prices by up to 40 percent. On Oct. 22, the agency tightened those rules and expanded them to all in-state calls.
Under the new regulations, an array of fees imposed on the basic services, including establishing and maintaining an account, will also be eliminated or reduced.
The new caps for the fees — which now make up an estimated 40 percent of an average prison phone bill, according to the Prison Policy Initiative — will range from $2 for a paper billing and $5.95 to process any payment through “live agents,” as opposed to automated voices.
In Hawaii, the new regulations will mean that the cost of a 15-minute call — which can now be as much as $13.30, including the fees — will be reduced by up to 43 percent.
The prison phone business is largely controlled by two companies, Global Tel*Link and Securus Technologies, who together corner 90 percent of the market nationwide.
It’s a huge industry: Global Tel*Link, for instance, was sold to a private equity firm for $1 billion in 2011.
The two companies have long opposed the FCC’s plan to cap rates, proposing instead a separate plan that would have kept them at 20 cents a minute for all debit and prepaid calls and 24 cents for collect calls.
But FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who has been a vocal advocate of the rate caps, pushed for the action before the commission’s Oct 22 vote.
“In a nation as great as ours, there is no legitimate reason why anyone else should ever again be forced to make these levels of sacrifices to stay connected, particularly those … who can least afford it,” Clyburn said in a statement. “The system is inequitable, it has preyed on our most vulnerable for too long, families are being further torn apart and the cycle of poverty is being perpetuated.”
Clyburn was joined by two Democratic colleagues in the commission’s 3-2 vote in favor of cheaper calls.
The FCC’s move represented a major victory for prison-reform advocates who have been decrying the prison phone costs for years.
“For 15 years, families of those held in our overflowing prisons have been subjected to punishingly high rates from monopoly phone providers. This policy benefits no one but the monopoly providers, often forcing poverty-stricken families to choose between paying their bills or staying in touch with their loved ones,” said Harold Feld, senior vice president of the consumer rights group Public Knowledge. “We commend the FCC for completing this proceeding in the face of lawsuits and political pressure from those who profit from these abusive prison phone rates.”
In announcing the decision, the FCC noted that its action is not only about reducing the cost, but also about preserving families ties.
“While contact between inmates and their loved ones has been shown to reduce the rate of recidivism, high inmate calling rates have made that contact unaffordable for many families, who often live in poverty,” the commission wrote. “Reducing the cost of these calls measurably increases the amount of contact between inmates and their loved ones, making an important contribution to the criminal justice reforms sweeping the nation.”
But Global Tel*Link CEO Brian Oliver is vowing to sue the commission over its decision.
The new regulations “create significant financial instability in the industry and will pose a threat to service at many of the nation’s smaller jails. Consequently, GTL is left with no choice but to seek judicial review of the FCC’s order,” Oliver said in a statement.
“While contact between inmates and their loved ones has been shown to reduce the rate of recidivism, high inmate calling rates have made that contact unaffordable for many families, who often live in poverty.” — Federal Communications Commission
“The FCC may ultimately hurt inmates and their families — the very people they set out to help. While they might see lower per-minute rates, they could be left with either the lowest quality of phone service or no phone service at all,” Oliver said. “Indeed, telling the world that technology, security, and commissions can all be provided under the proposed caps is profoundly naïve, ignores the FCC’s own record and defies common sense.”
The rate caps won’t take effect immediately — they must first be published in the Federal Register. Ninety days after publication, the caps take effect in prisons and, six months after publication, they will be instituted in jails.
The change can’t come soon enough for Ani, who sometimes falls behind on some of her bills because she considers maintaining contact with her boyfriend a priority.
“The situation sets me back sometimes, but it’s important for me to keep in contact because (Saguaro inmates are) so far away,” said Ani, who declined to provide her boyfriend’s name. “It’s good for them to know that their families are there for them. A support is important.”