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As MN prisons add video chat, feds crack down on criticized cost of inmate phone calls

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The cost of making a phone call in prison is going to be cheaper.

Contact between inmates and their loved ones has been shown to reduce the rate of recidivism (whether some re-offends after they get out), but the high cost of phone calls in prison has made that contact unaffordable for many families, who often live in poverty, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) says.

In some cases, inmates were being charged as much as $14 per minute to make a call, the FCC notes. But this week, the commission capped rates for local and in-state long-distance calling at 11 cents per minute from state and federal prisons.

The order also cut interstate long-distance calls by 50 percent, and closed "loopholes" that allowed inmate calling service providers (ICS) to include expensive "add-on fees". (Read all the pricing details here. The International Business Times discusses how this will affect ICS providers across the country.)

The new rates reduce the average cost for the majority of inmates, the FCC notes. It'll cost, on average, no more than $1.65 for a 15-minute call within Minnesota, down from $2.96.

Doing this, the FCC says, will increase the amount of contact between inmates and their loved ones, which makes "an important contribution to the criminal justice reforms sweeping the nation."

Advocates who have pushed for the FCC to regulate the cost of prison phone calls thanked the FCC for "taking such strong action to protect the most vulnerable families in this country from this exploitative industry," according to a post on the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative's website.

The organization says the FCC has given the industry three months to bring their contracts into compliance with the new rules. Inmates in state prisons will see the results in February, while those in jails will see cheaper phone calls next May.

Video visitation comes to MN prisons

Video visitation is growing in popularity at prisons throughout the country, and by the end of the month the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) will have the capability in all of its 11 facilities, the Star Tribune says. (Similar services are also available at some of the state's jails.)

These services allow inmates and loved ones to video chat in a way that's been compared to Skype. The idea is that it will help inmates stay more connected with their loved ones while behind bars.

At DOC facilities, visitors will use the service JPay. They'll pay $9.95 to video chat with an inmate for 30 minutes, the DOC's website says. The Star Tribune notes that inmates cannot make or pay for the calls.

Despite the FCC ruling on telephone calls, the commission doesn't regulate video visitation – at least not yet.

Mark Wigfield with the FCC told BringMeTheNews that the agency needs more data on video visitation, and opened the issue for public comment in the order adopted Thursday.

"Among the issues we’re exploring is the use, costs and rates of video visitation and other advanced inmate communications, services, and whether these services could be used to circumvent traditional inmate calling rates," Wingfield says.

Video visitation isn't perfect, though. The Prison Policy Initiative says the "forward-thinking idea" was implemented badly, noting the high-cost programs are often being used to replace "essential human contact."

The nonprofit says many county jails are replacing free, in-person visits with onsite video visits or remote video visitation that's costly for families. Bloomberg and Quartz have also reported on this.

As a result, the Prison Policy Initiative has recommended changes to federal and state officials that could make video visitation work better for all involved.

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