Court temporarily blocks price cap on prison calls

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A court has temporarily blocked new regulations that would cap the price that prison inmates pay to make phone calls.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit blocked a portion of the Federal Communications Commission's rules as a broader lawsuit moves forward. The rules, which were slated to take effect later this month, are meant to lower the prices that inmates and their families pay to talk on the phone. 

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A major portion of the rules passed last year was meant to ensure that federal prison inmates would not pay more than $1.65 for a 15-minute call — translating to 11 cents per minute. Those rates were slightly higher for smaller facilities. 

The court put that part of the rule on hold, called a "stay" in legal terminology, while inmate calling companies sue to completely strike down the regulations. A higher cap remains in place. 

However, another portion of the rule was allowed to go forward — specifically a part that caps secondary fees associated with calls, which can drastically increase the price of a call. Those includes payment transaction fees. 

The regulations were set to take effect for prisons this month, while jails would have until June to comply. 

"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," Chairman Tom Wheeler and Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said in a statement.

When asked about the lawsuit last year, Wheeler told reporters that it was par for the course, saying that "everybody sues us about everything."

The appeals court issued a short 2-page opinion granting the partial stay. The final outcome of the lawsuit will determine whether the rules are allowed to move forward. 

"With respect to these provisions, petitioners have satisfied the stringent requirements for a stay pending court review," the court wrote. 

When the rules were first passed, they were cheered by civil rights and consumer protection groups. Some had even pressed the commission to go even further. 

However, the few phone companies that operate prison phones made early warnings that they would challenge the rules in court. And Republicans, who opposed the regulations, predicted the commission would have a tough time in court. 

"This case captures well how the FCC in recent years has done business," said Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai said. "Political expedience trumps everything else; the rule of law is ridiculed rather than respected; and bipartisan compromise is rejected in favor of a party-line vote."