Human rights groups: Telecoms gouging prison callers

The groups call on the FCC to set rates for collect calls made from prisons and immigration detention centers

U.S. prisons, immigration detention centers and telecom carriers are charging "exorbitant" rates on collect calls made by inmates, and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission should step in to set rates, a coalition of 110 human rights groups, lawyers and professors said.

The expensive collect-call charges make it difficult for immigrants in detention to contact their families, legal counsel and human rights organizations, the groups said in a Thursday letter to the FCC.

Problems with prison phone rates are "well documented" by past media and government reports, said the letter, organized by Holly Cooper, associate director of the University of California Davis Immigration Law Clinic. A request for the FCC to address prison phone rates has been pending since 2003, Cooper noted.

"When people are detained as their immigration status is being determined by the courts, that should not give free license for detainees to be exploited by their jailers while they pursue their legal remedies," Paul Wright, executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center, said in an email.

Collect calls from prison can cost up to US$22.75 for a 20-minute call, according to the groups, including the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Detention Watch Network and Amnesty International USA. The collect-call charges are driven by contracts in which the telecom companies give commissions -- what the human rights groups called "kickbacks" -- back to the prisons, the groups said.

The telecom carriers pay the prisons up to 60 percent of the phone revenue, the groups said.

"The prison phone industry is based on a monopolistic model in which companies bid on contracts to provide phone services for individual detention facilities or entire prison or jail systems," the letter said.

Collect-call rates outside of prisons are similar to the rates detailed in the letter. AT&T charges $1.49 per minute for collect calls.

Representatives of three telecom carriers that dominate the prison phone market -- Global Tel-Link, Securus and CenturyLink -- did not return email messages seeking comment on the letter.

Most prisons ban prisoners from possessing mobile phones, although many devices are smuggled into prisons. Some prison systems use mobile call blocking technology to keep prisoners from dialing outside.

In 2011, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) called for detainees to have "reasonable and equitable access to reasonably priced telephone services," according to the letter. But the ICE recommendation is not legally binding.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags telephonytelecommunicationregulationSecurusCenturyLinkHolly CooperAmnesty International USAGlobal Tel-LinkPaul WrightAmerican Immigration Lawyers AssociationCriminalU.S. Immigration and Customs EnforcementHuman Rights Defense CenterDetention Watch NetworkUniversity of California Davis Immigration Law CliniclegalU.S. Federal Communications Commissiongovernment

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