HRDC director quoted on draft FCC prison phone industry reforms
Inmate Advocates Mostly Laud FCC Draft ICS Order; GTL, Sheriffs Concerned
October 05, 2015 Monday
Advocates for inmates and their families applauded an FCC draft to cap inmate calling service rates and restrict ancillary ICS fees, with some wishing the agency would further cut charges. But Global Tel*Link questioned the draft's consistency with the record, and the National Sheriffs' Association said proposals may not allow adequate compensation and could lead to service reductions.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and Commissioner Mignon Clyburn circulated a draft order Wednesday to cap per-minute intrastate, interstate and international ICS rates, restrict or ban ancillary service charges, and discourage ICS provider "site commission" payments to correctional institutions or government agencies. The commission plans to vote on the draft order and further NPRM at its Oct. 22 meeting. An FCC Fact Sheet outlined the draft actions and proposals.
"It's a welcome first step that somebody has finally stepped in to put some limits on the exploitation of prisoners and their families," said Paul Wright, executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center, who spent 17 years in prison and was among the parties to respond to our queries Thursday and Friday. "It's certainly a vast improvement over how things have been in the context of ruthless and relentless gouging, with no limits to the rapacity and greed of the prison telecom companies and their government partners. ... We're talking about phone bills that can be size of a rent payment or mortgage payment." Even if the FCC adopts the order, he said the lowest per-minute rate cap of 11 cents a minute will still be double the intrastate rates set in some states such as New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Mexico: "We still have a ways to go." He called the bulk of the site commissions "kickbacks" to correctional and government authorities.
"We are excited. The FCC's proposal would give families the telephone justice they have long been asking for," said Bernadette Rabuy, Prison Policy Initiative policy and communications associate. Michael Hamden, a lawyer in Chapel Hill, N.C., who has advocated for inmates on ICS issues, said it was "high time the FCC took meaningful action to regulate the ICS industry, and it looks like they're about to do so." He said there was no reason for correctional facilities and government agencies to derive profits from inmate calling. "They deliver the mail to inmates, but they don't charge the post office," he said. Hamden said he remained concerned that the FCC didn't ban ICS provider site commission payments to prisons and jails, which could encourage correctional authorities to seek the highest per-minute rates within the caps because they receive a percentage of the revenue.
Global Tel*Link was the only large ICS provider to respond to our queries. "While we are unable to comment until we review the full order, we believe that there is discrepancy between the released summary draft and the record that has been established in the proceedings in the last two years," it emailed. "Upon reviewing the final order we will provide additional comment and assessment."
President Bill Pope of ICS provider NCIC Inmate Phone Services is "excited" about the FCC developments, he said. "It's great." He said small ICS retail providers using NCIC's wholesale service wouldn't allow his company to add ancillary fees, but the lower rates should drive higher volumes of calls. "I would have liked the per-minute rates to be a little bit higher," he said. "But it is what it is, and we'll have to learn to adapt to it."
National Sheriffs' Association Executive Director John Thompson emailed that "the primary goal of Sheriffs is to ensure public safety and security in their facilities and inmate calling services must meet these objectives. The current FCC proceeding on inmate calling services has highlighted the very real and significant costs of ensuring public safety and security in connection with inmate calling services. While the National Sheriffs' Association continues to review the FCC's Fact Sheet on its regulation of inmate calling services, NSA is concerned that the proposed inmate calling service rates and compensation structure may not be sufficient to cover these costs, particularly with respect to small jails. NSA also is concerned that inmate calling service providers may simply stop offering to provide service in small jails."
Sheriff Harold Eavenson of Rockwall County, Texas, told us the NSA wasn't opposed to a "reasonable compromise" to reduce ICS rates and charges. But he said the FCC should be mindful that sheriffs use ICS revenues to benefit inmates. He also warned that if cost recovery is driven too low, some companies might stop providing phone service to inmates. That would not only cut them off from their families but also eliminate criminal "intelligence gathering" by correctional officials who monitor their calls, he said.
Verizon believes the proposed reform will help "curb the excessive fees and help the families still struggling to pay burdensome inmate-calling rates," it said in a blog post. "Commissioner Clyburn and Chairman Wheeler deserve a lot of credit for their leadership on this important issue."
Andrew Schwartzman, Georgetown Institute for Public Representation senior counselor, credited Clyburn with driving the reform, which he said was a long time coming and badly needed. "Simply put, prisoners are captive customers and they have been ripped off," he wrote. "Charges vary by locality, but some 15 minute calls could cost $20 or more. Prison phone companies compete for their exclusive contracts by offering 'site commissions,' which are more accurately described as kickbacks, to prison authorities. Since prisoners have no choice and no bargaining power, the market is upside-down, so the competition has created higher, rather than lower, rates."