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The Fight for Comprehensive Prison Phone Reform Continues

As previously reported in PLN, the prison telecom industry has been successful so far in delaying implementation of the rate caps ordered by the FCC in October 2015. [See: PLN, May 2016, p.36; Dec. 2015, p.40]. And while the limits on ancillary fees were implemented in prisons in March 2016 and jails in June 2016, intrastate rate caps remain stayed by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals after Global Tel*Link, Securus and corrections officials filed suit challenging the FCC’s order. Some prison phone providers have even increased intrastate rates, which are currently unregulated, to offset lost revenue from fees and interstate calls.

Faced with the reality of long delays while the previously-ordered rate caps work their way through the court system, the FCC made a strategic but difficult decision to increase the caps to cover phone-related costs allegedly incurred by correctional agencies. The goal of the rate cap increase was to moot claims in the pending lawsuit related to cost recovery by prison and jail officials.

Under the new rate caps, all debit/prepaid calls from federal and state prisons will be capped at $0.13/min. Debit/prepaid calls from jails with more than 1,000 prisoners will be capped at $0.19/min., from jails with 350-999 prisoners at $0.21/min. and from jails with under 350 prisoners at $0.31/min. As with the FCC’s original order, collect calls will be capped at higher rates and then phased down to the same debit/prepaid caps over a two-year transition period.

Prisoners and their families have experienced considerable frustration since the FCC’s October 2015 order, which due to the court stays has never fully gone into effect. While the limits on fees were implemented, some prison phone providers reduced their maximum deposit amounts so that more transactions have to be made (and fees paid) to deposit the same amount of money into phone accounts. The elimination of many ancillary fees also resulted in the creation of exorbitant first-minute phone “rates” so telecoms can continue to price gouge prisoners and their families. The adverse effects of the FCC’s 2015 order are solely the result of the unabated greed of prison telecom companies and the correctional agencies that accept “commission” kickbacks from monopoly phone contracts.

While the increased rate caps are set to go into effect in federal and state prisons 90 days after the FCC’s latest order is published in the Federal Register (expected to occur by September 2016), and in jails 180 days after publication, further court appeals by prison phone companies as well as state and local corrections officials are expected. There is no way to know at this point whether the Court of Appeals will delay implementation of the FCC’s modified rate caps as it did with the October 2015 rate caps. PLN will continue to report on this issue as it develops, and continue to file comments on the FCC’s docket concerning abuses by prison telecoms and the ongoing need for comprehensive reform of the prison phone industry.


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