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Nevada Utilities Commission Caps Prison Phone Rates

In the July, 1995, issue of PLN we reported that the Nevada Public Service Commission (PSC) was considering putting an end to the extortionate phone rates paid by people who accepted collect calls from Nevada state prisoners. On September 12, 1995, the PSC announced that the rates charged for prison collect calls would be capped at the highest rate charged by any long distance carrier operating in the state.

The PSC's action was prompted by widespread complaints received by prisoners' family members, many of whom could ill afford the excessive phone bills. Examples cited by the commission were a Las Vegas woman who spoke to her son in a rural Nevada jail for 30 minutes and was charged $85. A Winnemucca jail prisoner called a friend in Eureka, spoke for five minutes and the person called was billed $16, four times the typical rate charged by other long distance companies.

In June, 1995, the Nevada DOC signed a contract with Sprint Communications to exclusively handle collect calls by prisoners. Sprint promptly increased the rate to three to five times higher than what local phone companies had been charging. Rick Hackman, of the PSC's Consumer Division, said "This has been a tremendous hardship." More importantly, Sprint failed to obtain PSC approval for the new extortionate rates as required by PSC rules. Sprint claimed it had been told PSC approval was not needed due to telephone deregulation. The old rates (i.e., the legal rates) were 55 cents for an operator assisted call, which Sprint increased to $3 and then charged the regular long distance rate on top of that. Nevada Bell had previously charged $1 for operator assisted calls in Northern Nevada. Under the new rules operator surcharges on local calls were also capped. Sprint and the PSC announced that people charged the illegal rates would receive refunds.

Under the new PSC rules long distance companies providing service to prisoners must comply with the new regulations within 60 days of April 3, 1995. The companies must also secure PSC approval to serve Nevada prisons and jails and obtain approval for the rates they intend to charge as well.

All prisoners and anyone who has accepted a collect call from a prisoner is aware of the extortionate rates charged by phone companies who typically have exclusive contracts with prison systems and who provide lucrative kickbacks to the prison systems. Prisoners in Louisiana succeeded in capping phone rates and getting refunds through petitioning the state utilities commission and boycotting phone use. [See, PLN, Vol. 5, No. 4]. Federal prisoners successfully capped the charged rate at the highest charged in the state, see the upcoming article on Washington v. Reno. Other suits challenging these practices are pending in MA and CT and will be reported by PLN once decisions are rendered. The April, 1993, issue of PLN discussed potential litigation strategies against excessive phone rates. Copies are still available for $1.

Source: Las Vegas Review Journal

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