FCC Adjusts, But Still Can’t Implement, Caps On Sky-High Rates Prisoners Pay To Call Home

Image courtesy of Great Beyond

We’re used to saying that someone is a “captive audience” for a major monopoly, but for the millions of Americans living behind bars, that phrase becomes painfully literal. Phone companies that connect inmates to their loved ones on the outside have for years taken advantage of their position with sky-high rates and fees, but the FCC is once again stepping in to help mitigate the problem.

Back in 2015, the FCC adopted hard caps on the rates those monopoly businesses providing inmate calling services (ICS) could charge. As we explained at the time, prior to those caps calls from prison could cost up to $14 per minute, and were filled with fees and charges that hit inmates before the even got a chance to talk to anyone.

That 2015 measure set the cap on calls of 15 minutes or less at no more than $1.65. It also set the per-minute rate for calls to between $0.11 and $0.22, depending on the kind and capacity of jail or prison in question.

Additionally, it prohibited “flat-rate calling,” in which any call, regardless of duration, was billed for at least 15 minutes, and limited how high the ancillary service charges and fees for a whole bunch of line items were allowed to be.

But of course, businesses really strenuously object to any regulation that limit how much money they can rake in from any given fee, and so a lawsuit ensured. The state of Oklahoma, the Sheriff of Oklahoma County, and Global Tel-Link (a major ICS provider) petitioned to block any enforcement of the caps.

The petitioners claimed that the limits were too restrictive, that they would not sufficiently recoup costs for providing prison service, and that the FCC had overstepped its authority by acting at all anyway.

During the proceeding, the court agreed to put a stay in place on the per-minute caps, so those aren’t yet effective. However, the court allowed the FCC to go forward with its restriction on ancillary fees while the proceeding moved forward, and so those limits are now in place.

But, you know, inflation happens. The cost of business changes. And so the FCC is adjusting their caps just a little bit, to reflect the changes… and maybe get the petitioners off their backs so they can actually be implemented already.

The new per-minute rates, instead of ranging from $0.11 to $0.22 per minute, now range from $0.13 to $0.31 cents per minutes, increasing the most in smaller facilities where economies of scale are not as helpful to an ICS business.

The limits on fees, however, remain unchanged — and are still in place.