The phrase always asks who you’d call if you found yourself behind bars—not how much you’d be willing to pay for that call.
It used to be costly. At a January 2008 public hearing, New Mexicans testified about paying hundreds of dollars per month just to communicate with incarcerated family members. In a letter to the Public Regulation Commission (which oversees telecommunications rates, among many other things), one woman complained that the audio quality and overall service of calls with her incarcerated husband were “poor,” and that “excessive” phone charges for incarcerated people sometimes led to “alienation between the inmates and their families and friends.”
Last November, the PRC took action, capping rates for calls made by inmates at 15 cents per minute—one of the lowest rates in the nation, according to data compiled by the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice. To inmates and their families who claimed phone companies were taking advantage of a literally captive population, it was a victory.
But now, some phone companies are fighting back—and they’re asking that the PRC reopen the case.
Their beef is with what telecoms have dubbed the “One Minute Free Rule”—a provision meant to prevent providers from charging inmates for dropped calls that last less than a minute. Companies like Securus Technologies, Inc., which works with New Mexico correctional facilities, objected to that requirement.
According to documentation filed with the PRC, the phone companies argue that there were no hard data—only informal complaints—that service providers were intentionally dropping phone calls in order to force inmates to incur a second charge.
Some telecom companies claim the free-minute requirement is unjust, because providing an initial connection can be costly, and inmates may take advantage of a free first minute. One claimed in a filing that it “knows from decades of experience that inmates will ‘game’ the system” by making multiple calls that last less than a minute to avoid incurring charges.
Securus also maintains there wasn’t sufficient debate over the one-minute provision.
“This portion of the rule was adopted without evidence, without discussion,” the company argued in a June 10 motion.
The PRC, however, defends the one-minute provision, maintaining there’s no evidence that inmates would “game” the system, and that the provision was put in place based on “informal” complaints to the PRC and one correctional facility.
In 2007, for instance, the PRC discovered that one provider, PCS, had charged about $500,000 in unauthorized late fees for their calls with inmates. Jeffrey Albright, an attorney for PCS, said at the January 2008 hearing that the company had contracted with a Texas billing company, DTech Billing Services LLC, that overcharged customers for unauthorized late fees.
“[But] am I correct that none of those events happened prior to a consumer complaining to the [PRC], the Commission opening an inquiry, and then asking you…to tell us why you were charging what you were charging, or your contractor was charging?” PRC Commissioner Jason Marks asked at the time.
Albright admitted that it was the “impetus of the complaint that prompted us to examine what DTech was doing,” but he added that after an investigation, PCS terminated its contract with DTech and refunded $98,000 to customers.
Marks—a Democrat now running for attorney general—last week attended a Federal Communications Commission hearing in Washington, DC, to share New Mexico’s regulatory experience. He says emerging technologies like online calling remain unregulated, as do certain interstate long-distance calls. He argues that while New Mexico remains at the bottom of the list in many categories, it can be a “model” for national regulation when it comes to detention-facility phone services.
“They’re not going to make the kind of profits that were possible in a predatory system,” Marks says. Still, he adds, per-minute charges are only part of the cost equation for families.
“The folks caught in the middle—it’s the inmates,” he says, “but it’s really the families that pay for this.”
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