For decades, every time an inmate picked up a phone to dial a friend or family member, that correctional facility received a percentage of the cost of the call, typically around 50 percent. With millions of people locked up nationwide, the prison phone industry has flourished, growing to a $1.2 billion year business. 

But the jail phone industry is at a crossroads -- and upcoming regulations that threaten to limit commissions might prompt sheriffs around the country to severely curtail prison phones altogether. “It’s very possible that sheriffs could elect to eliminate the calls,” Jonathan Thompson, the executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association, said in an interview this week. “They don’t have to provide a call service.”

Regulators and prison advocates have long-claimed commissions have provided perverse incentives for jails and prisons. Commissions, they say, motivate jails to choose phone providers (like Securus and Global Tel*Link) that charge exorbitant rates -- while family members of inmates are left to foot the bills.

In 2013, the Federal Communications Commission began its first sweep of prison phone reform by capping phone rates of interstate phone calls. But a second round of regulations its on its way. Later this summer, the FCC is expected to expand its initial regulation that will attempt to make phone calls more affordable for family members. They are considering a variety of changes, including capping the rates of in-state calls, limiting ancillary “set-up” fees, and -- perhaps most interestingly -- eliminating the commission structure altogether.

“The record is clear that site commissions are the primary reason [prison phone] rates are unjust and unreasonable,” the FCC has said in its initial comments recently. 

The suggestion that commissions may be eliminated has outraged sheriffs around the country. They say that if their jails can no longer claim commissions on the calls, their administrations may not even bother to offer calls to inmates at all. 

Jonathan Thompson’s statements have been echoed by dozens of sheriffs around the country who have filed ex-parte documents with the FCC. “If we are not permitted to recover the costs associated with the provision of [inmate calling] services,” writes Ronald D. Crockett, the sheriff of Lancaster, Virginia, “then we can and we may be forced to significantly limit or eliminate altogether access to inmate phones in our jail.”

Sheriffs argue that they need the money to cover the costs of operating the calls.  Prison phone systems are unlike home telephones: They’re constantly monitored by personnel and often recorded for legal purposes. “Currently, we have the incentive to allow significant access to [inmate calling] service and inmates are able to make calls 15 hours per day,” writes Crockett. “Denying payments to jails or restricting such payments to levels that do not at least cover our costs, will have the effect of reducing the incentive and ability to continue to allow [inmate calling services] in this manner.”

  Sherifff Ronald Crockett ex-parte letter to the FCC

There’s certainly a bit of irony here for prison-rights groups. Advocates have fought for years to get the FCC to address and eliminate the commission structure. Now that they have, though, inmates families may have a new set of concerns: getting access to phones. As one industry source put it, it’s a “be careful what you wish for” type of situation. 

In the wake of the regulations, the country’s three largest prison phone companies -- Securus, Global Tel*Link, and Telmate -- have aggressively expanded into new lines of business. Securus, a billion-dollar technology company, for instance, has hedged its potentially-diminishing prison phone business by expanding its video visitation services on jails -- which costs as much as $20 per call -- and is not regulated by the FCC.  

The FCC is expected to issue its ruling some time later this summer. For now, it is reviewing all ex-parte comments, which seem to mount by the day. Peter Wagner, a vocal prisoner’s rights advocate and the founder of Prison Policy Initiative, believes that the best decision is not to eliminate commissions -- but to simply make it affordable for inmates' families to call loved ones in jail. 

“While the Prison Policy Initiative has concluded that commissions are at the root of the current market dysfunction, we do not think it matters whether the companies choose to share a portion of their reasonable profits back with the facilities,” Wagner wrote to the FCC in a January filing. “In our view, it only matters that the rates and fees charged be reasonable.”