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FCC to Cut Some Prison Call Costs, But Most Are Beyond Its Reach

May 20, 2021, 9:01 AM

The Federal Communications Commission is poised to reduce out-of-state phone call rates in major prisons and jails by more than 30%, its latest attempt to bring down high calling costs said to hit Black inmates particularly hard.

The plan, which the FCC is expected to approve Thursday, would prevent companies like Securus Technologies and Global Tel Link from charging incarcerated people and their families more than 12 cents a minute in large prisons, and 14 cents in large jails, for calls to and from other states.

The agency is expected to impose rate caps on international calls for the first time, and restrict the fees prison phone providers can charge customers—fees that pay for the commissions the providers pay to jails and prisons under their contracts.

Black inmates and their families are said to be especially affected by the call costs. At the end of 2019, there were 1,096 sentenced Black prisoners in state and federal prisons per 100,000 Black residents, compared to 214 white prisoners per 100,000 White residents, according to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The prospective FCC action highlights that the agency is curtailed in how much it can regulate prison call rates.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, in 2017, barred the FCC from regulating rates for in-state prison phone calls—calls that account for about 80% of all prison calls and can be much more expensive than out-of-state calls, according to former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai (R). Pai sent a letter to state utility regulators last year calling on them to lower rates for intrastate calls.

“African-Americans are disproportionately represented among the incarcerated,” Pai wrote. “They and their families are thus disproportionately reliant on inmate calling services. Yet they and their families tend to have lower incomes, making them particularly vulnerable to these exorbitant intrastate rates.”

Advocacy groups welcome the FCC’s likely action, but stress that Congress must step in to lower in-state rates.

“The breadth of the relief proposed is so narrow — it’s too little and for too few,” said Bianca Tylek, executive director of nonprofit advocacy group Worth Rises. “The limitations on the FCC imposed by precedent legal decisions continue to stymie meaningful industry regulation.”

Exclusive Contracts

Companies such as Securus, Global Tel Link, and Pay Tel Communications Inc. have contracts with correctional facilities that give them exclusive rights to provide the services. The companies have faced criticism from consumer advocates for imposing additional fees to set up accounts and add minutes.

The Obama-era FCC attempted to lower rate for interstate and in-state phone calls to and from correctional facilities but the D.C. Circuit struck down in-state phone rate caps after a challenge by Global Tel Link, among other prison phone providers. The court ruled that the agency exceeded its authority under communications law and can only regulate out-of-state calls.

As a result, in-state prison phone call rates exceed interstate rates in 45 states—and are double in 33 states—according to FCC data.

As of 2018, a 15-minute in-state jail phone call continued to cost more than $20 in some states, including Arkansas, Michigan and Wisconsin, according to the latest data from the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit research group. Out-of-state calls from and to correctional facilities across the country are typically just a fraction of that.

Fee Limits

The FCC’s proposed, interim limits on out-of-state prison phone calls would apply to prisons and jails with an average daily population of 1,000 or more. In smaller facilities, the agency’s existing interstate cap of 21 cents would remain.

The proposed order also would limit additional fees, known as site commissions, that prison phone companies tack on to consumers’ phone bills to cover payments they are required to make to correctional facilities under their contracts. The order would limit site commissions to 2 cents per minute in prisons and larger jails, and seeks public comment on whether the agency should make broader changes to how it regulates such payments.

Under the plan, the FCC would also seek public comment on further steps it could take, including changing the methodology for interstate and international rates.

Randy Brown, director of corporate communications for Global Tel Link, said in an email that the company disagrees “with certain points in the draft order,” but believes that “lower rates will benefit incarcerated individuals and their families and friends.”

Brown also said the company has established a program in response to the Covid-19 pandemic “that offers all incarcerated individuals serviced by GTL access to a baseline of free communications to connect with their support network on a regular basis.”

“Our permanent free weekly calling program has resulted in over 85 million free calls” in the past year, Brown said.

Securus, the second-largest U.S. prison phone company, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Congressional Action

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) introduced a bill (S. 1541) May 10 that would give the FCC more authority over in-state prison phone call rates. A similar bill spearheaded by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) in the last Congress was included in the House-passed pandemic-related stimulus bill, but didn’t see Senate action.

In the meantime, some states and local governments have taken on the task. New York City became the first major city to make phone calls free in city jails in 2019 and the San Diego County Board of Supervisors recently voted to make such calls free in county detention facilities by July 1.

The Connecticut General Assembly’s appropriations committee May 3 voted 46-2 to advance a bipartisan bill that would make phone calls to and from correctional facilities free in the state starting October 2022. If the bill is enacted, Connecticut would become the first state to make such phone calls free.

“Lowering the cost of these prison, jail, juvenile facility, and other detention center calls will enable greater communication with family, which is beneficial to the rehabilitation and reentry process,” John Koufos, national director of reentry initiatives at conservative group Right on Crime, said in an FCC filing.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jon Reid in Washington at jreid@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Melissa B. Robinson at mrobinson@bloomberglaw.com, Keith Perine at kperine@bloomberglaw.com

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