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Maine Supreme Judicial Court: PUC Cannot Regulate Prisoner Phone Rates

On April 21, 2009, the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine decided that the telephone use rates the Maine Department of Corrections (DOC) charges state prisoners was not subject to regulation by the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC).

A complaint was filed with the PUC alleging that the DOC's prisoner telephone rates were unreasonable and unjustly discriminatory. The DOC charges $.30 per minute for prisoner-paid direct calls and $.25 per minute plus a $1.55 connect charge for collect calls. The DOC pays a contractor $.03 per minute to use the Public Switched Telephone Network.

After the complaint was filed, the DOC completed its conversion from a telephone system owned by outside contractors to largely owning its own telephone system. It contested the PUC's regulatory authority, alleging that there was no statute giving the PUC authority over the DOC. The PUC held that the DOC was a "person" and thus subject to its regulation pursuant to 35-A M.R.S. § 102(13). It ordered the DOC to file a rate schedule and petition to operate a telephone system. The DOC appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court.

The court held that the PUC was incorrect in defining the DOC as a "person" and thus subject to its regulation. A long-standing line of judicial reasoning within Maine held that express statutory authority was required for a state entity to be subject to regulation. Because the statute in question does not specifically state that the PUC may regulate another state entity, the PUC erred in using the definition found in Black's Law Dictionary to conclude that the DOC was a "person" subject to its regulation.

Furthermore, allowing such regulation would interfere with the DOC's broad authority to manage the prisons. Maintaining unfettered control over the telecommunications network is also essential to the DOC's mission of providing security in the prisons. The DOC is also not acting as a public utility by providing prisoner phone service as prisoners are not members of the public. Therefore the PUC's order was vacated and the case returned to the PUC for further proceedings. See: DOC v. PUC, 968 A.2d 1047 (Me. 2009).

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