CHEAPER CONNECTIONS: Cost of calls from behind this fence is going down.

  • CHEAPER CONNECTIONS: Cost of calls from behind this fence is going down.

The Federal Communications Commission has voted to immediately lower the cost of inmate phone calls. News reports say it will take about 120 days for the new rule to take effect.

“The Commission’s reforms adopt a simple and balanced approach that protects security and public safety needs, ensures providers receive fair compensation while providing reasonable rates to consumers,” it said.

In an interim move, the FCC limited per-minute rates to 25 cents for long-distance collect calls, meaning that a 15-minute call cannot top $3.75. Debit and prepaid calls were capped at 21 cents a minute, or $3.15 for 15 minutes.

Extra fees and commissions to connect calls also are banned. The new rules go into effect immediately, the agency said.

The FCC’s vote ends a practice in 42 of 50 U.S. states where a handful of phone companies were awarded the bulk of prison contracts.

This rule change will mean big savings to Arkansas prison inmates who make regular calls and also for those in other lockups with similar service, including city, county and juvenile facilities.

We’ve written in the past about the Arkansas Correction Department’s contract with an outside company, Global Tel-Link, to provide prison phone services and the department reaps a 45 percent commission on each call, a commission worth $2 million a year.

Until the FCC ruling, this was the practice previously in Arkansas:

For personal calls, inmates pay a surcharge of $3 per call for in-state calls and $3.95 to call out-of-state. On top of that, inmates are charged 12 cents per minute for in-state calls, and 45 cents per minute for out-of-state calls. Currently, a 15-minute in-state call would cost $4.80 before taxes, while a 15-minute interstate call would cost $10.70. An inmate making a once-a-week 15-minute call to a family member out of state would pay more than $550 per year. With all inmate calls being made collect or by a debit system that allows family members to put money on an inmate’s phone account, the cost of those calls is usually passed on to the inmate’s family.

These prices are actually lower than they once were. As the Times story linked above noted, the calls are an important lifeline for many inmates to stay in touch with families and make preparations to return to the free world, a factor cited by the FCC in its ruling.

The FCC ruling applies only to interstate calls, but officials have said the agency may also consider reducing the cost of in-state calls.

Department spokesman Shea Wilson said: “Yes, it means changes. We will be looking at our system and making the necessary changes to be in compliance with the ruling.” It’s not clear yet how this will affect the existing contract — if, for example, the provider will continue to pay a 45 percent commission on lower rates.

Many other jails face changes, too. The Pulaski detention facility, for examples, allows inmates to make collect and prepaid calls through a service that charges $3.95 on each interstate call plus 89 cents a minute. It’s revenues and charges can be seen here.