Expensive phone calls to and from prison inmates in Illinois soon will be a thing of the past.
The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to cap the rates and fees starting next year. The FCC also strongly discouraged the providers' practice of paying commissions to the prison facility in exchange for the phone service contract - fees critics refer to as kickbacks.
Aleks Kajstura, legal director of the Prison Policy Initiative, said the existing prison phone rates are outrageous.
"There was no cap on how much they were charging, so they were charging people $1 a minute," she said. "There were programs that charged $15 flat rate per call. You could talk just for two minutes and still be charged $15. There were all sorts of fees tacked on, on top of those phone rates, costing $10 just to add to the account so you could make the call."
The latest research from the Prison Phone Justice group, showed that last year families in Illinois who called inmates paid the highest fees in the nation - about $13 million. That's almost twice what families in the next state on the list, Pennsylvania, paid that year.
Kajstura said phone calls are a lifeline, especially for inmates in parts of rural Illinois, where the families may have to drive hundreds of miles to visit in person. She noted that this change could save prisoners' families hundreds of dollars a month.
"Of course, it's unfair to make the least able in our society pay the most for keeping in contact with their loved ones," she said. "All of society benefits when families keep in touch. It reduces recidivism in the end."
The issue has been on the FCC's plate for a decade. Four phone service companies dominate the prison market. They have called this a business-ending event and are threatening to sue the FCC.
Prison Phone Justice statistics for Illinois are online at prisonphonejustice.org.