Court Delays Some FCC Efforts To Lower Costs For Prisoners’ Phone Calls

Image courtesy of (Rick Drew)

Last fall, a new FCC order sought to reduce the often sky-high prices that prisoners must pay for making phone calls. Those changes were to start kicking in over the coming weeks and months, but today a federal appeals court delayed some reforms while allowing others to move forward.

Some inmate calling services (ICS) charge upwards of $14 for a single minute of phone service, not to mention ancillary fees for things like speaking to a customer service rep or adding money to an account.

The order adopted by the FCC in the fall of 2015 seeks to cap both the rates for making ICS calls and those add-on fees.

For example, under the new rules, the most an ICS could charge for up to 15 minutes on the phone would be $1.65. Prepaid calls would be capped at $0.11 per minute in state or federal prisons, $0.14 per minute for jails with 1,000 or more inmates, $0.16 per minute in jails with fewer than 1,000 but more than 350 inmates, and $0.22 cents per minute for the smallest jails.

ICS providers would also be blocked from imposing “flat-rate calling” plans, where the prisoner pays for 15 minutes whether they use a few seconds or the full quarter-hour.

As for the ancillary service charges, ICS providers would be limited to only charging up to $3 for automated payment through phone or website; $5.95 to pay through a live agent; and $2 for a paper bill.

However, earlier this year, the state of Oklahoma, the Sheriff of Oklahoma County, and ICS provider Global Tel-Link (made famous through the Serial podcast), have petitioned the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for Washington, D.C., to block the enforcement of these new restrictions. They contend that the limits are too restrictive; that ICS providers and prisons need to charge significantly more for phone service because of all the things that make prisons and jails different from other communities (like the fact that you need to have a safe escort just to do installations and repairs); and that the FCC overstepped its authority in enacting those rules.

The FCC countered that, “Far from intruding into state or local powers… the Order is a firmly grounded exercise of the FCC’s statutory authority to ensure that charges for inmate calling services —including for intrastate calls — are ‘fair,’ not excessive,” and that the rate caps in the new guidelines are “sufficiently generous to allow correctional authorities to continue collecting substantial payments from inmate calling providers without diminishing the availability or quality of inmate calling services.”

The petitioners had asked the court to grant a stay pending the outcome of the dispute. This afternoon, the court did agree to delay implementation of the lower rate caps, but allowed the FCC to move forward with implementing the restrictions on ancillary fees.

So, starting March 17, prisoners will face the lower add-on fees described above. Those will roll out to inmates in jails on June 20.

“While we regret that relief from high inmate calling rates will be delayed for struggling families and their 2.7 million children trying to stay in touch with a loved one, we are gratified that costly and burdensome ancillary charges will come to an end,” say FCC Chair Tom Wheeler and FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn in a joint statement. “These fees can increase the cost to consumers of a call by nearly 40%, compounding the burden of rates that are too high.”