For years, inmate advocates have argued that the cost of a phone call from a prison or jail is onerously high, and inmates’ families are footing the bill. While the FCC, under the Obama administration, moved to broadly cap rates, the Trump-era agency declined to defend the caps in court, where they were struck down. The result has been a demoralizing setback for those pressing for regulation of the billion-dollar-plus industry.
August, though, has brought some isolated signs of change. Earlier in the month, New York City moved to make all calls from jails free, becoming the first major city to do so. The city council speaker explained in a statement that “the city has been profiting from some of the poorest and most vulnerable New Yorkers for years.”
Last week brought more news. The Texas prison system voted to cut the cost of calls from 26 cents per minute to 6 cents, even lower than the FCC’s planned cap. The Houston Chronicle reports that a 15-minute call that previously cost $3.90 will now cost 90 cents.
Still, the changes in cities and states, while notable, are short of the regulation inmate advocates once hoped for under the Obama FCC. In 2015, the FCC passed its caps on a party-line vote by Democratic commissioners. Current FCC chairman Ajit Pai, then a commissioner, opposed the rules at the time, and he made the decision to drop the legal battle once appointed by Trump to lead the commission. There has since been no sign of taking up action again.