Alabama Public Service Commission Enacts Prison, Jail Phone Reforms
Over the past several years, the Alabama Public Service Commission (PSC) has issued a series of orders that revise an October 2013 order related to rule changes for Inmate Calling Services (ICS). The PSC issued its most recent directive in February 2016, adopting rate caps set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
For decades, phone calls made by prisoners have posed a financial hardship for their friends and family members who pay for the calls, while providing huge profits for the telecom companies that hold monopoly prison and jail ISC contracts. “Commission” kickbacks paid to the government agencies that award the contracts have helped drive higher phone rates. [See: PLN, April 2011, p.1].
The PSC’s new rules considerably change the ICS landscape in Alabama.
In February 2014, the FCC implemented interim interstate rate caps, causing several ICS providers to inform prison and jail officials that they were ending commission kickbacks for interstate calls. Before the rate caps, a 15-minute interstate call from a state prison in Alabama cost $17.30 while an intrastate (in-state) call cost $6.75. The FCC’s rate caps limited interstate collect calls to $0.25/min. and prepaid/debit calls to $0.21/min. [See: PLN, Dec. 2013, p.1].
When setting in-state rate caps in July 2014, the Alabama PSC found the ICS costs for jails were higher than those for prisons. It also sought to protect the public interest by not severely impacting prison and jail budgets immediately. As such, the PSC set an intrastate rate cap of $0.30/min. for jails in the first year of implementation, $0.28/min. for the second year and $0.25/min. for the third year. For Alabama state prisons, the intrastate rate cap was $0.25/min. the first year, $0.23/min. the second year and $0.21/min. the third year.
Further, the PSC prohibited phone cards from being resold above their face value to prisoners and detainees. ISC providers must issue replacement prepaid calling cards with the same unused balance as the cards being replaced, and fully transfer unused balances from expired calling cards to a new card purchased by or for a prisoner. Calling cards must expire in six months or upon a prisoner’s release or request for a refund.
The PSC’s July 2014 order reversed its requirement that ISC providers offer an initial two-minute call for free, but “encouraged” them to do so. While it also found it was impractical for prisoners to speak to live customer service representatives, the PSC required ISC providers to supply a toll-free number for customer inquiries, and provide monthly paper account statements upon request without cost for prisoners to review.
To protect ISC providers from fraud, they were authorized to establish a limit of $100 per payment for debit/credit card transactions and $300 for total debit/credit card payments during the most recent 30-day billing period. The PSC also required ISC providers to include, without extra charge, “up to 5 wireline/wireless numbers on the call list for prepaid ISC accounts,” and prohibited them from assessing “additional charges or fees based on the underlying telecommunications technology associated with any telephone number.”
This article highlights only the major provisions of the PSC’s 105-page July 2014 order; the full text is available on PLN’s website. On December 9, 2014, the PSC issued a revised order that made several changes related to ISC within Alabama. That order was amended and stayed in January 2015 due to a motion for reconsideration filed by ICS provider CenturyLink, which noted that two of its competitors, Securus Technologies and Global Tel*Link (GTL), had filed challenges to the PSC’s order in both the Alabama Supreme Court and Montgomery County Circuit Court.
On April 10, 2015, the state Supreme Court ordered that the actions filed by Securus and GTL be held in abeyance pending the resolution of their cases pending before the circuit court. The PSC then lifted its stay on its prior order related to ICS reforms, with the intrastate rate caps and limits on certain fees going into effect beginning July 13, 2015.
However, the FCC issued an order in November 2015 that further reformed the prison phone industry, including new rate caps for both interstate and in-state calls [see: PLN, Dec. 2015, p.40], and the Alabama PSC entered a revised order in February 2016. The PSC noted the FCC’s reforms were “virtually identical to this Commission’s regulation of in-state ICS. Both the FCC and this Commission place caps on prepaid and debit ICS calls, limit the type and amount of ancillary fees, and find that site commissions should not be included as a cost to set rate caps.” The PSC adopted the rate caps set in the FCC’s November 2015 order, which went into effect at Alabama prisons on March 17, 2016 and in jails on June 20, 2016.
Even though the FCC’s order has been stayed nationally by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals due to challenges filed by Securus, GTL and corrections officials, Alabama prisoners have benefited from the lower intrastate rate caps set by the PSC, which has jurisdiction over in-state phone rates.