FCC raises inmate calling rates in shadow of court battle

FCC raises inmate calling rates in shadow of court battle
© Greg Nash

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday raised the maximum rates that companies are allowed to charge inmates for phone calls as the agency's previous attempt to cap those costs moves through the court system.

Last year, the commission set new limits on the per-minute cost of phone calls made in prisons or jails. The aim was to limit costs imposed on inmates by a few providers.

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But those companies sued to stop the rules and, earlier this year, obtained a court-ordered delay of the new rates.

By raising the rates on Thursday, the commission can argue that it is making it easier for jails and prisons to afford the inmate-calling systems, potentially disarming one industry line of attack.

Calls in state or federal prisons will now be 13 cents per minute, instead of the 11 cents approved by the commission last year. Different rate changes will go into effect for different sizes of local jails and types of calls.

The changes will go into effect for prisons 90 days after the regulations are published in the Federal Register and six months after they are published for jails.

The commission’s vote was divided along party lines.

Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who has led the commission's work on inmate-calling services, said that the commission had given providers a fair shake when it came to covering their costs.

"This order relies on the information provided by companies and associations that represents sheriffs, and a leading regulator in state reforms — and it fully addresses and covers those providers’ costs,” she said.

Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai said that the order fails to cover the costs incurred by providers and violates the commission’s legal authority.

“We cannot set rate caps that are below the costs of providing inmate calling services,” he said. “It’s really that simple and, yet, here we go again.”

The new rates came after a criminal defense attorney filed a petition asking the commission to reconsider its action from last year. He had hoped the agency would reverse course and get rid of “site commissions” that calling companies paid to jails and prisons as incentives, often unrelated to the calling systems. In turn, those costs can be passed along to inmates.

Instead, the new rates will cover the costs associated with implementing the systems without an outright ban on the site commissions.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said he hopes the commission can now move past the debate.

“We are addressing a reprehensible situation that should not exist and we are adjusting our response as we have collected more information so that once and for all we can put this issue behind us,” he said.