By Vera Bergengruen

Starting next year, many Americans won't have to make the difficult choice between talking to family members in prison and paying their bills.

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted to cap the price that phone companies can charge for calls to and from prison inmates, which they say can run up to a staggering $14 per minute.

The rates for prison phone calls far exceed those of the general public, with the financial burden falling on the families of the more than 2 million incarcerated Americans.

"A few times I had to have my phone disconnected, because I had to decide whether to use my income to pay rent or pay the phone bill, eat or pay the phone bill," said Lilian Tillman, 48, a mother of four from New Orleans whose 25-year-old son has been incarcerated in a Midway, Texas, jail for the last nine years.

Separated by hundreds of miles, phone calls are often the only way to stay connected.

"Hearing from him is very important, but calling is overwhelming to deal with," she said. "They overcharge for dropped calls, they overcharge to answer calls, and I don't know until I get the bill."

Under the new rules, scheduled to go into effect in early 2016, most prison inmates will not be charged more than 11 cents per minute for any call. The rules will reduce call costs from $2.96 to $1.65 for a 15 minute in-state call, and from $3.15 to $1.65 for a 15-minute long-distance call. It will also curb the extra charges that can often tack on up to an extra 70 percent, according to the commission.

"The truth is that each of us is paying a heavy price for what is now a predatory, scaled market regime," said Democratic FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. "Not one of us here would ever consider paying $500 a month for a voice-only service where calls are dropped routinely for no reason."

Advocates say that even if the public has little empathy for prisoners who have committed crimes, there is a social cost to impeding communication with the outside world.

"This is really a class-based penalty," said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice advocacy group. "It really conflicts with many things we know about successful transition from prison, especially for low-income families, like the need to maintain strong family support, which means they can better get a place to live, contacts for employment, and a support network during hard times."

Advocates say that staying in touch makes it less likely that once released, former inmates will lapse back into criminal behavior.

"Society and communities are safer because they're not going to re-offend if they stay connected with a network that can check in with them and make sure they're alright," said Cheryl Leanza, a policy adviser at the United Church of Christ and a longtime advocate for prison phone reform.

While they don't ban them outright, the new FCC rules also strongly discourage what they describe as kickbacks, the commission phone companies usually pay correctional facilities to win lucrative phone service contracts.

Corrections officials say these commissions are necessary to supplement cash-strapped prison budgets that rely on them to cover security costs associated with phone calls and other inmate services.

"At a facility you have a phone system that has the added value of the content being monitored, so if someone is trying to bring weapons into a facility, or intimidating a witness, these kinds of things are being scanned for in the system," said Steve Casey, the director of the Florida Sheriffs Association, which filed a petition along with the National Sheriffs Association expressing concern about the FCC proposal.

"I mean, there have been people who were able to orchestrate crimes from their jail cells," he said. "Sheriffs say, 'Monitoring this costs money, I should be able to recoup some of my cost.'"

Inmate advocates say this places an unjust financial burden on inmates' family members while lining the pockets of the small handful of companies that control the $1.2 billion prison phone industry.

"Incarceration is a policy choice, and it's imminently unfair to then ask the families to pay for the correctional budgets. It's flawed on so many levels," said Aleks Kajstura, legal director at the Prison Policy Initiative, a public policy think tank.

Phone companies have threatened to contest the rates, which they say are below their costs, and some facilities say they may have to reduce the number of calls inmates are allowed to make.

Clyburn has made prison phone reform her personal mission and took steps to cap interstate calling rates back in 2013.

"Easing the financial burden on these families is not only the compassionate thing to do, it's the smart thing to do," she said earlier this month, citing the case of one inmate who faced a $56 bill for a four-minute conversation with a pro bono attorney.

The reforms received a boost last week when 15 senators endorsed the proposed rules in a letter to the FCC, blaming the current system for "incentivizing a regime in which prisons profit from charging inmates higher rates."

"Everybody is collecting something and families are burdened," said Tillman, who works as an advocate for Louisiana families with incarcerated children.

She said she hopes the new FCC rules will bring some relief.

"At the end of the day, I don't even understand how they all work, exactly," Tillman said. "I just want to call my son."

(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau