A “Quantum Leap” Isn’t Far Enough for the Prison Phone Industry
The December 2015 issue of Prison Legal News detailed a historic October 2015 rulemaking decision by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to comprehensively reform the prison phone industry. Regular PLN readers are all too familiar with abuses by prison phone companies, which have long price-gouged prisoners and their families. [See: PLN, Dec. 2013, p.1; April 2011, p.1].
The FCC voted to cap debit and prepaid prison phone calls at $.11/min., and collect calls at $.14/min. (to be phased down to $.11/min. over a two-year period). Prepaid and debit phone calls at jails were capped on a scale based on facility size, ranging from $.14/min. to $.22/min., while collect calls at jails were capped at $.49/min. (to phase down to lower rates over a two-year period). The rate caps for calls from federal and state prison systems were to become effective March 17, 2016, while the caps on jail calls were scheduled to go into effect June 20, 2016.
Pursuant to the FCC’s order, all connection fees for prison and jail phone calls were prohibited (e.g., for rates such as $1.50 to connect plus $.20/minute, the $1.50 fee was banned). Further, flat-rate calls were eliminated – when one rate is charged regardless of the duration of the call. All ancillary fees were banned except three: automated payments by phone or online are capped at $3.00, payments through a live agent are capped at $5.95 and no more than $2.00 can be charged for paper billing statements.
Described as a “quantum leap in prison and jail phone industry reform” by PLN managing editor Alex Friedmann, the FCC’s order still stopped short of the finish line. Editor Paul Wright mentioned in last month’s issue of PLN that several prison phone service providers, including Global Tel*Link and Securus, had filed suit in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals contesting the FCC’s order. At least nine states and several sheriff’s offices have joined or intervened in the suit. On March 7, 2016, the appellate court issued a partial stay prohibiting the rate caps from going into effect, though the court did not stay the FCC’s order with respect to ancillary fees, connection fees and flat-rate calls, among other provisions.
On March 23, 2016, the DC Court of Appeals entered another stay, preventing the FCC from applying the 2013 interim rate caps for interstate (long distance) calls to intrastate (in-state) calls. This means that while interstate rates for calls made from correctional facilities remain capped at $.25/min. for collect and $.21/min. for debit and prepaid calls, intrastate phone rates are completely unregulated by the FCC until the appellate court lifts the stays or enters a final order in the case. However, the limits on ancillary fees did go into effect on March 17, 2016, as did the ban on connection fees and flat-rate calls.
In some cases, the FCC’s elimination of flat-rate calls had unintended consequences. For example, some detention facilities replaced low-priced flat-rate local calls with a per-minute rate that resulted in higher costs. Minnesota DOC prisoners report that a 15-minute local call at metro facilities that used to be a flat $.35 regardless of duration is now $.05/min., which adds up to $.75 for a 15-minute call. In Tennessee, DOC officials replaced a flat-rate of $.80 to $.89 per local call with a rate of $.07/min. – or $2.10 for a 30-minute call. PLN is monitoring this issue and will be filing a comment with the FCC to explain these unintended consequences.
Not all of the news is negative. Based on public interest and awareness generated by the national Campaign for Prison Phone Justice – co-coordinated by the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), PLN’s parent organization – a number of state prison systems adopted lower phone rates despite the court-ordered stays, in anticipation that the FCC’s rate caps would go into effect as scheduled. The Minnesota DOC implemented rates of $.05/min. for all calls from state prisons effective March 17, 2016, and $.01/min. for TTY-TTY calls for deaf and hard of hearing prisoners. A memo issued by MN DOC assistant commissioner Bruce Reiser on March 9, 2016 described the new rates as “fair and consistent,” and said they “will allow offenders across all facilities to make reasonably priced phone calls.”
Prison officials in Washington State capped the rates for all phone calls at $.11/min. effective March 17, 2016. “The Washington Department of Corrections has decided to adopt the new and more progressive rates and not wait for further legal decisions on the FCC’s decision,” stated Jeremy Barclay, Communications Director for the Washington DOC. Additionally, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety changed its prison phone rates to $.10/min. for in-state and long distance calls effective March 17, 2016 and limited ancillary fees to the caps set forth in the FCC’s order.
More needs to be done, though. HRDC has long advocated for a rate cap of $.05/min. for all calls made from detention facilities, no ancillary fees, an end to kickbacks paid by prison phone companies and increased transparency, and will continue its efforts to reach those goals.
HRDC is currently gathering information from all 50 state prisons systems and updating the data posted on its phone justice website: www.prisonphonejustice.org. HRDC plans to file additional comments on the FCC’s docket related to the prison phone industry, as many of the underlying problems remain unresolved: monopoly prison and jail phone contracts that provide commission kickbacks to corrections agencies, resulting in inflated phone rates at the expense of prisoners and their family members.
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