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Prison Phone Justice Campaign: Recent Developments

PLN’s December 2013 cover story provided an updated look at the prison phone industry and examined a recent order by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that imposed rate caps on interstate (long distance) prison and jail phone calls. There have since been several new developments on the prison phone front.

As previously reported, the nation’s two largest Inmate Calling Service (ICS) providers, Global Tel*Link and Securus Technologies, filed legal challenges to the FCC’s order in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

On January 13, 2014, the appellate court ruled on Securus’ motion for a stay of the FCC’s order, granting the motion in part and denying it in part. As a result, several key provisions of the order were placed on hold pending the outcome of Securus’ lawsuit.

The interim rate caps imposed by the FCC – $.25 per minute for collect interstate ICS calls and $.21 per minute for debit and prepaid interstate ICS calls – were not stayed and went into effect on February 11, 2014. As of that date, all correctional facilities nationwide were required to comply with the rate caps.

In addition to the rate caps for interstate prison phone calls, the D.C. Circuit also declined to stay a provision of the FCC’s order related to a prohibition on billing-related call blocking.

However, three other provisions of the FCC’s order were stayed by the Court of Appeals: Section 64.6010, which requires that ICS phone rates and ancillary fees be cost-based; Section 64.6020, which establishes safe harbor rates of $.14 per minute for collect interstate calls and $.12 per minute for debit and prepaid interstate calls; and Section 64.6060, which imposes annual reporting requirements on prison phone companies. The appellate court’s stay of these provisions will remain in effect until it issues a ruling on the merits of Securus’ challenge to the FCC’s order.

Following the court’s ruling, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn and Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel issued a joint statement. “We are pleased that millions of families will finally see relief from outrageous rates for inmate calling services when the interim rate caps ... go into effect in February 2014. These families have been forced to pay exorbitant rates for far too long,” they wrote. “Although we are disappointed that the court granted a partial stay on other aspects of the Inmate Calling Services Order, we look forward to a hearing on the merits soon, and to adopting further reforms quickly.”

A number of individuals and organizations have moved to intervene in Securus’ lawsuit, including the D.C. Prisoners’ Project, Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), the Prison Policy Initiative, United Church of Christ’s Office of Communication and the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice. See: Securus v. FCC, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, Case No. 13-1280.

Meanwhile, on December 20, 2013, the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) – the parent organization of Prison Legal News and co-founder of the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice – submitted a comment concerning the FCC’s Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on prison phone-related issues. The comment addressed the importance of ICS reforms, the necessity for reform of intrastate (in-state) ICS services, quality of ICS services, ancillary fees charged by ICS providers and inadequate state-level regulation of intrastate prison phone calls.

Further, on January 13, 2014, HRDC filed a reply comment with the FCC to address issues raised by Pay-Tel, an ICS provider that primarily supplies phone services for local jails. Pay-Tel had argued that rate caps on local calls in 7 states required it to offset losses from local ICS calls with revenue generated from interstate ICS calls, and that the FCC’s rate caps on interstate calls would force the company to operate at below cost or go out of business. HRDC noted in its reply comment that three of the states cited by Pay-Tel did not, in fact, have statutory or regulatory rate caps on local calls; one state required a rate cap on only certain types of local calls; and the remaining three states had rate caps ranging from $2.25 to $2.70 for a 15-minute local call – which were all “above the safe harbor rates established by the FCC for interstate calls.”

Lastly, PLN’s December 2013 cover story was accompanied by four charts, including one (Chart D) that listed state-by-state prison phone “commission” kickbacks for 2009 to 2012. The only state with missing data was Maryland, as we had not obtained ICS commission amounts for that state by the time we went to press. The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services subsequently provided its prison phone commission data, which included revenue of $5,022,056 in 2009, $5,148,620 in 2010, $5,160,994 in 2011 and $4,958,265 in 2012.

Thus, the total prison phone commissions received by state DOCs nationwide were $140,014,346.39 in 2009, $137,397,425.41 in 2010, $130,697,906.12 in 2011 and $128,296,030.61 in 2012. PLN continues to gather data related to prison phone contracts, rates and commissions, and provides this data to the FCC.

Sources: FCC news release and joint statement (Jan. 13, 2014),

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