FCC votes to cap 'predatory' inmate phone rates

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The price inmates pay to call their friends and family is set to decrease after the Federal Communications Commission voted Tuesday to cap the rates. 

The vote was part of a years-long push to decrease the cost of prison and jail calls, which have been described as predatory and are dramatically higher than general rates for the public. 

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"The truth is that each of us is paying a heavy price for what is now a predatory, scaled market regime," said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat, who has led the charge. "None of us here would ever consider paying $500 a month for a voice only service where calls are routinely dropped for no reason." 

The FCC also implemented new rules it said would “discourage” advance payments that the few dominate calling services give to prisons to win exclusive contracts, sometimes described as "kickbacks." Advocates and even the phone companies themselves pushed the FCC to go further to end the payments altogether, which are technically called site commissions. But the FCC said its authority to do that is questionable. 

Clyburn encouraged states to reevaluate those payments and to cap rates at even lower levels at the local level, as a few states have already done. 

Most inmates' calling rates will drop to 11 cents per minute, though rates will be capped at higher prices in smaller prisons and jails. Other transaction fees will be capped between $2 and $6. 

The cap is a more than 50 percent drop from previous limits, and those only applied to calls between states. The new cap will apply to all calls within a state and between states. 

Civil rights groups and others have pointed to the benefits of inmates being able to make calls affordably and how close contact with family can help reduce recidivism. 

Phone companies have been required to ensure that their rates for inmate calls are reasonable and fair. One way they have justified higher-than-normal prices in the past is by factoring in the upfront payments for contracts. 

The new order would allow these payments to go forward but would prevent phone companies from factoring them in when calculating phone rates. 

GOP commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly both opposed the rules. While they called them well-intentioned, they said the rules bend the FCC's legal authority and violate the Administrative Procedure Act. 

"I think it is a policy matter," O'Rielly said. "Congress should decide the wrangling and determining whether we should or should not act. They should provide specific authority."

The four largest companies in the prison phone industry, which make up 90 percent of industry revenue, have said the FCC's rules would have a devastating effect on their business and have threatened to sue to try and block them.