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More than a decade in the making, the nationwide campaign to rein in the exorbitant cost of prison phone calls hit a major milestone in the fall.
In October, the Federal Communications Commission voted to end price-gouging by private companies that provide the phone services in correctional facilities across the country, handing a rare victory to those who have been advocating for “prison phone justice” since the early 2000s.
When the new regulations kick in next year, the cost of prison phone calls in many states are expected to be slashed by more than half, allowing inmates and their families to stay in touch without going broke.
“For far too long, prison phone companies have enjoyed monopolies that allowed them to charge outrageous fees … with virtually no regulation. Those days are finally coming to an end,” Paul Wright, executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center, said in a statement in October.
But the FCC ruling failed to address one thing: “site commissions” that phone companies pay to the operators of correctional facilities in exchange for getting exclusive contracts.
The FCC had found that the commissions — or “kickbacks,” as critics call them — were a “significant driver of increases to rates charged to inmates,” because the contracts are typically awarded to phone companies that promise the highest commission payment, with little regard for the corresponding rate increase.
Still, the FCC stopped short of imposing an outright ban on the commissions, saying only that it “strongly encourages parties to move away from site commissions.”
During a five-year period starting in February 2010, Hawaiian Telcom made commission payments of nearly $500,000 to the department, according to payment records obtained by Civil Beat through a public records request.
Hawaiian Telcom officials say the arrangement hasn’t led to artificially inflated rates for inmates: The company offers them the same rates and fee structure that it does to any collect-call customers.
But critics say the department should be negotiating for special rates for inmates, given that they are a significant customer base for Hawaiian Telcom.
“I don’t see why the Department of Public Safety can’t just call up Hawaiian Telcom and say, ‘Hey, we’re a big customer. Could you stop sending us those 15 percent commission payments and lower the rates by 15 percent?'” said Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit. “That’s something that should be very easy.”
Nolan Espinda, the director of public safety, says the commissions fund the Hawaii Statewide Automated Victim Information and Notification system, which allows victims and others to get notified confidentially when the custody and parole status of offenders change. “We are solidly behind the concept of supporting SAVIN under the current arrangement,” he said.
But the department “will look further into the possibilities associated with renegotiating a mutually beneficial arrangement to the users and victims alike,” Espinda added.
Under the current system, inmates in the state’s prisons and jails have two ways to make calls: collect or prepaid.
For in-state calls, the same rates apply to either method: Local calls can be made at a $1.95 flat rate, while calls to neighbor islands start at $1.45, with each minute adding another 9 cents to 14 cents.
For out-of-state calls, the per-minute rates differ slightly for collect and prepaid calls: 24 cents and 20 cents, respectively.
Hawaiian Telcom charges an additional fee of between $7.95 to $9.75 every time inmates reload their payment account — though they can avoid the fee by paying their bills through wire transfer or using check or money order.
During a five-year period starting in February 2010, more than 135,000 calls were made by inmates, resulting in gross revenue of more than $3.3 million for Hawaiian Telcom, the records show.
That means inmates and their families paid an average of $2.04 for each call, before any fee was applied.
Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated that in five years more than 135,000 calls were made by inmates, at an average cost per call (with fees included) of $24.44.
But the FCC’s new regulations will significantly cut the cost: The maximum rate of local and long-distance calls from prisons will be capped at 11 cents a minute, meaning that a 15-minute call will cost no more than $1.65. In jails, the rate will range from 14 cents to 22 cents a minute, depending on the number of people in the facility.
The FCC also voted to dial back the excessive fees, capping them at the maximum of $5.95.
In Hawaii, the cost of a 15-minute call — which can now be as much as $13.35, including the fees — will be reduced by up to 43 percent under the new regulations.
Before the FCC’s vote, the companies offered a nine-page, alternative proposal spelling out what they thought fair regulations should look like.
The proposal offered moderate rate reductions — to 24 cents a minute for collect calls and 20 cents for debit and prepaid calls — while encouraging the FCC to eliminate the commissions altogether.
The companies argued that steep rate cuts would “have a devastating effect” on their operations “unless the existing site commission system is addressed” by the FCC.
Wagner sees an irony: “Big companies have been talking from both sides of their mouth on this. They have used the promise of high commissions to distinguish themselves to get contracts, but they now want the federal government to protect them from the facilities that demand the commissions.”
For their part, more than 250 sheriffs across the country petitioned the FCC to preserve the commissions, arguing that the money is needed to offset the cost of providing the phone services and other amenities that would otherwise go unfunded.
The National Sheriffs’ Association even threatened that, if the commissions were eliminated, some jails would have to stop offering the phone services — which they say are “discretionary” — to inmates.
In the end, the FCC voted not to wade into the commission issue — instead, it urged the states to take action.
The American Jail Association was delighted: In an “alert” sent out to its 4,000 members, the association said the FCC had made a “180 degree reversal” from its original stance on the commissions. “We believe the FCC now better understands the need for facilities to recoup some costs,” it wrote.
Over the years, at least 10 states have already gone on to do what the FCC suggested: They eliminated the commissions on their own.
In New York, for instance, the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision used to collect a 57.5 percent commission on each inmate call — a windfall of about $20 million a year — until 2007, when the state adopted a statute banning the practice.
Before the ban, the state’s inmates were charged a connection fee of $1.28 and a per-minute rate of 16 cents for each call, meaning that they were paying $3.68 for a 15-minute call.
But the state now offers calls at less than 5 cents a minute — 72 cents for a 15-minute call — leading to a sharp increase in inmate calls from 5.4 million in 2006 to 14 million in 2013.
The ban also had another impact: less illicit cellphone use. In 2012, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision confiscated fewer than 100 cellphones — a far cry from more than 10,000 seizures that typically occur in a similar-sized correctional system.
In Hawaii, state Sen. Will Espero, vice chair of the Senate Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs, is looking into sponsoring a similar legislation to institute the ban.
“My feeling is, ‘Should we be profiting from inmates who need or want to communicate with their loved ones?'” Espero said. “We should look at ways to lower rates for the inmates and their families. It appears the state is taking advantage of a one-of-a-kind customer base.”
For its part, Hawaiian Telcom says it’s open to a discussion about amending its contract with the state.
“If approached by (the Public Safety Department), Hawaiian Telcom will be available for negotiations within the State of Hawaii procurement guidelines,” spokeswoman Ann Nishida Fry said.
Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, a nonprofit pushing for criminal justice reform in Hawaii, says she supports such a move. The lower rates, she says, will encourage the communication between inmates and their families — one of the keys to reducing the recidivism rates.
“Keeping inmates connected to people on the outside is part of a recidivism strategy. We don’t want people to go back to prison, so it’s important that they maintain those outside connection,” Brady said.