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The Prison Complex

Tuesday, Jan 7, 2014, 7:00 am

Cost of prison phone calls is mercifully on the decline, but there a loophole—video calls

By Matt Stroud

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In November, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted a series of rule changes to keep the costs of prison phone calls in check. In its action summary, it explained an example of some of the more egregious problems with the current system: "While an inmate in New Mexico may be able to place a 15 minute interstate collect call at an effective rate as low as $0.043 per minute with no call set up charges, the same call in Georgia can be as high as $0.89 per minute, with an additional per-call charge as high as $3.95 -- as much as a 23-fold difference." So that needed to change, and the FCC did its best. But Leah Sakala at the the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) points out -- to The Prison Complex as well as the FCC -- that there's a loophole in the FCC's changes: video conferencing. From PPI:

We just submitted a comment to the FCC detailing some of our disturbing findings about the burgeoning prison and jail video communications market, and urging the FCC to keep tabs on non-phone forms of communication in future rulings.

Some jails are using video visitation, which is often fee-based, to replace, rather than supplement, free in person visits.

Like the prison and jail phone industry, the video communication industry is rife with technical malfunctions and usability issues that need to be addressed.

In many cases, video communication customers are subject to hefty fees and high rates, and a portion of the proceeds goes to site commissions. (Sound familiar?)

FCC failure to regulate prison and jail video communication charges will leave this industry with a ready method to instantly circumvent FCC phone charge regulation simply by replacing facilities’ current telephones with video phones and labeling the verbal communications that take place as “video calls”. This would, of course, defeat the FCC’s mission to relieve families from having to pay astronomical phone bills.

We also noted that more and more correctional facilities are adopting email service, which has the similar potential to replace other critical forms of communication and carries similar risks of financial commission-fueled consumer abuse.

As our submission demonstrates, video visitation is here to stay. Increasing the number of ways that families can stay in touch is a good thing. But allowing companies to exploit families and undercut the FCC’s efforts to bring fairiness to this industry is not.

PPI's full submission to the FCC can be found here. Three exhibits with news articles and contracts can be read here, here, and here

We'll continue to monitor this issue at The Prison Complex, and so will PPI. Stay tuned.

Matt Stroud is a former Innocence Network investigator who now covers the U.S. legal system, in all its glory and ugliness, as a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @ssttrroouudd. Email him at

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