The Federal Communications Commission announced on Thursday a dramatic reduction in telephone rates charged to prisoners and jail inmates, a move welcomed by Maine prisoner advocates as a way to help maintain ties between offenders and their families.

Maine has the fourth-highest phone rates for state prisoners in the country, according to the FCC. The average cost of a 15-minute, in-state long-distance telephone call from a prisoner or inmate in Maine is currently $5.30.

That would drop to $1.65 for state prisoners under the FCC rule capping rates at 11 cents per minute for the largest federal and state prisons. Smaller facilities would see slightly higher rates.

Actual charges are often much higher because of additional fees tacked onto calls, which can make a 15-minute call cost as much as $14 in some parts of the country, the FCC said. The commission also eliminated or capped many of those fees.

Maine advocates welcomed the new rules.

“Remember, 95 percent of the people incarcerated are going to be released. Recidivism is tied to the support system they have in the community,” said Joseph Johnson, coordinator for the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition.

Johnson said capping the cost at 11 cents per minute for inmates is an improvement, but is still much higher than what providers charge the state prisons themselves, which he said is 2.5 cents per minute.

“Of course they’re making money on it,” he said. “Some of that money is supposed to be going back to the inmates.” Two thirds of the people in prison don’t have jobs with the facility so they depend on family members on the outside for things like telephone calls, he said.

Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry, president of the Maine Sheriff’s Association, said at Two Bridges Regional Jail, as with many other facilities, the extra money earned from phone rates is placed in an inmate benefit fund and is used for things like stocking the library or buying tools for the shop program.

Under the new rules, jails with 350-1,000 inmates, such as Cumberland County Jail, would see rates capped at 16 cents a minute, or $2.40 for a 15-minute call. Jails with fewer inmates, which would cover most of the state’s county jail population, would see a maximum rate of 22 cents per minute, or $3.30 for a 15-minute call.

Capt. Steve Butts, head of security and operations for Cumberland County Jail, said Maine’s telephone rates may seem high, but jails in other states typically add extra fees that make those calls more expensive.

Butts said the telephone system, which is recorded and monitored, is a wellspring of intelligence information – about drug deals, threats and crimes committed on the outside. The money earned on phone service is not enough to cover the salary of the investigator who monitors the system, he said. He worries the rate cap might mean the county has to pay more for the telephone equipment.

“I’d rather have the inmate pay for it rather than the taxpayer,” he said.

Merry favors local control rather than federal mandates, but without oversight, some facilities will exploit the system.

“I’m sure this is based on complaints made to the FCC,” he said.

It was.

Martha Wright-Reed of Washington, D.C., brought a class action lawsuit against Corrections Corporation of America, which operates 86 prisons and jails in 26 states, and various telephone companies. Wright-Reed estimated she spent $1,000 a year on phone calls of 15 minutes or less trying to maintain contact with her grandson, imprisoned for manslaughter in Arizona.

A judge referred the suit to the FCC, which led to Thursday’s ruling.

Many families of incarcerated people live in poverty and can’t afford the high phone rates jails and prisons charge, the commission said. Some families refuse to accept collect calls from an inmate because of the cost.

“The FCC has a mandate to ensure that rates for all phone calls are just, reasonable and fair for all Americans, and that includes the families and loved ones of inmates,” said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who led the effort in the FCC to reform the inmate calling system. “Easing the financial burden on these families is not only the compassionate thing to do, it’s the right thing to do. Multiple studies have shown that having meaningful contact beyond the prison walls can make a real difference in maintaining community ties, promoting rehabilitation, and reducing recidivism.”

Jody Breton, associate commissioner for the Maine Department of Corrections, said the state is aware of the FCC ruling, which has been in the works for years. The state’s current contract for telephone service has expired. Officials were waiting for the ruling before seeking a new request for proposals, she said in an email. She was unable to say Thursday evening how much the state collects in telephone revenue.

Providers of prison phone service argue the higher rates are justified because of the cost of technology to record inmate phone calls. They have threatened to file a court challenge.

The FCC said the new rates cover the costs of enhanced security requirements and allow providers a reasonable return on their investment.

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]