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Oklahoma DOC, Sheriffs Challenge FCC’s Prison Phone Reforms

A petition for review has been filed in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals challenging the Second Order and Third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking released by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on November 4, 2015, which made sweeping reforms to the prison phone industry. [See: PLN, Dec. 2015, p.40].

The petition, filed by the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel and the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association, alleges that the Order exceeds the FCC’s statutory authority to prevent unfair practices and ignores evidence of the costs that correctional facilities incur when providing phone services to prisoners. The petitioners have asked the appellate court to set aside and enjoin enforcement of the FCC’s Order.

As previously reported in Prison Legal News, the Order, set to take effect in all state and federal prisons on March 17, 2016 and in all other detention facilities nationwide on June 15, 2016, establishes a rate cap of $0.11/min. for debit and prepaid calls made from state and federal prisons and $0.14-$0.22/min. for debit and prepaid calls from local detention facilities based on their population size. Collect calls will initially be capped at higher amounts and phased into the rate caps over a two-year period.

The Tenth Circuit petition, filed on January 25, 2016, characterizes regulation of the prison phone industry by the FCC as a “benefit” to prisoners and describes “the FCC’s related decision to disallow any cost to service providers that would be paid to a prison or jail” as a “serious flaw.” While the FCC’s Order did not allow cost recovery for such payments made to correctional facilities – euphemistically called “commissions” but in reality kickbacks – it did not ban them, only discouraged them.

PLN will report the outcome of the case; the FCC’s Order is also being challenged by Global Tel*Link and Securus, the nation’s two largest prison phone service providers. See: State of Oklahoma v. Federal Communications Commission, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, Case No. 16-9503.

The Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s parent organization, filed formal comments with the FCC in response to the agency’s Third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, and submitted a reply comment on February 8, 2016 that addressed multiple filings by prison phone companies seeking to forestall further reforms – including reforms related to the cost of video visitation and international calling rates. 

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Related legal case

See: State of Oklahoma v. Federal Communications Commission