Providing incarcerated people opportunities to communicate with support networks on the outside improves reentry outcomes. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to limit in-person interaction and use of electronic communication grows, it is critical that services such as video calling and email be available to people in prisons. Yet incarcerated people — and their support networks on the outside — pay egregious prices for electronic-communication services that are provided free to the general public. Video chatting with a person in prison regularly costs more than $1 a minute, and email costs are between $0.20 and $0.60 per message. A major reason rates are so high is that facilities are paid site commissions as a percentage of the amount spent on calls (ranging from 20% to 88%).
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has explicit authority to regulate interstate prison phone calls (called Inmate Calling Services, or ICS). However, the DC Circuit Court ruled in 2015 that video calls and emails are not covered under the definition of ICS and hence that the FCC does not have authority under the 1996 Telecommunications Act (47 U.S. Code) to regulate video calls or emails. They separately ruled that the FCC does not have authority under §276 of the Telecommunications Act to regulate site commissions. The DC Circuit Court ruling creates an imperative for Congressional action. Congress should revise the Telecommunications Act to clearly cover email and video calls in prisons and jails, capping costs of these communications at “just and reasonable” levels. In the interim, the FCC should try again to eliminate site commissions for telephone calls by relying on §201 of the Telecommunications Act.