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Published: Monday, 8/19/2013


Prison phone disconnect

Ohio inmates will pay less for interstate telephone calls, thanks to a new Federal Communications Commission cap on what the FCC calls the exorbitant price of long-distance calls from prisons nationwide.

The ruling was long overdue, as a handful of mostly private companies in a largely unregulated area of the telecommunications industry have continued to jack up prison phone rates and isolate inmates from their loved ones. Prisons in more than 40 states, including Ohio, got more than $100 million in commissions from these phone firms last year, Prison Legal News reported.

Excessive prisoner phone fees unfairly burden low-income families and undermine the re-entry and rehabilitation efforts of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

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Ohio has had one of the nation’s highest costs — only Alabama, Georgia, and Arkansas charged more — of interstate prisoner calls: $17.14 for a 15-minute call. That’s almost as much as Ohio prisoners earn in a month. In New York, the average cost of a 15-minute long-distance call is roughly $1.

Ohio inmates also pay $3.50 for a completed collect call and $4.95 for a $25 prepaid calling card. In Ohio and Michigan, inmates average roughly 300 calls a year, though it’s unclear how many of those calls are to out-of-state numbers.

The FCC order caps the cost of interstate calls at 25 cents a minute, reducing a 15-minute call in Ohio from more than $17 to less than $4.

Global Tel Link Corp. of Alabama pays Ohio $15 million a year to provide phone service, one of the nation’s largest commissions. Service providers have every incentive to raise rates.

Strapped corrections departments don’t seem to mind as long as they get some of the revenue. But it’s an outrageous way to do business for any agency that concedes that maintaining and strengthening family relations and community ties increase the chances that an inmate will succeed after prison.

With high gasoline prices and the remote location of many prisons, phone calls are important for keeping families together. It’s not unusual for prisoners to live hundreds of miles from their families, and millions of American children have a parent in prison.

Taxpayers should not have to subsidize prisoner phone calls. But neither should the state make millions of dollars on the backs of some of the state’s poorest people.

In many ways, Ohio, with about 50,000 inmates, has led the nation in sentencing reforms and re-entry initiatives. Correction director Gary Mohr has made reducing recidivism a core part of his department’s mission. Gouging inmates for long-distance calls undermines such goals.

Thanks to the FCC, hundreds of thousands of families around the country — most of them poor — will get some relief from high prisoner interstate phone rates. But the FCC does not have authority to regulate calls within a state.

Ohio should have taken care of this problem a long time ago, even if it meant scrapping its commission from the prison phone service provider. Now that a federal agency has ended predatory practices on interstate calls, it’s time for Ohio to look at lowering other prison phone rates.

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