Are inmates in state and federal prisons charged too much to make a phone call? The Federal Communications Commission thinks they are.

On Oct. 22, the telecommunications regulator is expected to impose strict new caps on how much convicts can be charged for making phone calls from the big house. In so doing, the agency will (once again) be overstepping its bounds, overriding policy decisions set by those who actually run the prisons.

There is little doubt that making a phone call from prison can be expensive, with per minute rates of up to 89 cents, according to the FCC, not counting various per call fees that can be tacked on.

Thus, a fifteen minute phone call could cost over $13, compared to less than a dollar on the outside.

A Lack of Competition

The FCC blames the cost on a lack of competition, a fact that is blindingly obvious. Inmates are the ultimate captive customers, and competition is kept away by literal barriers to entry. But the gatekeepers in this marketplace are not the phone companies – it is the corrections officials themselves.

Prison authorities typically grant exclusive licenses to specialized firms that manage phone systems for correctional facilities. A big share of the revenue – as much as 96 percent — then goes back to the prisons, through fees due from these firms. In part, this money helps to offset the security costs to wardens of providing phone calls to inmates, ranging from call monitoring to providing escorts for repairmen. Much, however, is typically used to fund general prison operations and programs.

Prisoner rights activists have long denounced this system. By treating inmate phone calls as a cash cow, prisoners are discouraged from staying in contact with friends and family in the outside world.   The resulting isolation, they argue, makes it harder for them to integrate into society when they are released.

FCC Regulations Are Not a Solution

Finding this argument persuasive, the FCC imposed interim caps on interstate phone rates in 2013. On Thursday, permanent – and broader – regulations will be voted on.

The new rules will apply to in-state as well as interstate calls, and lower the average cost of a 15-minute call to $1.65. The costs of this reduction, however, will be borne by the prison system, and ultimately the taxpayers, who will have fewer resources for other priorities.

This issue involves the sort of trade-off weighed every day by policymakers in deciding how to use the resources at their disposal. But in this case, the decision is not being made by those responsible for running prisons or ensuring that ex-convicts are successfully and safely re-integrated into society. Nor is it being made by legislators accountable to the people.

Instead, the decision is being made by the unelected members of the FCC, an agency with no expertise – or accountability – for prison management.

The regulators at the FCC have a disturbing habit of expanding their own jurisdiction (having asserted regulatory control over the Internet only this February).

That expansion should be stopped outside the prison walls.