Justice

The FCC Deals a Financial Blow to Inmates and Their Families

President Donald Trump’s new head of the Federal Communications Commission is already making moves that could uphold high fees levied on families with loved ones in the criminal justice system.

prisoner-and-prison-cell

In a court briefing filed last week, an FCC lawyer explained that the agency, now under Republican control, no longer felt that it had "the authority to cap intrastate rates for inmate calling services,” meaning that the agency will no longer pressure phone companies to cut the costs of calls to and from prisons within the state. The notice was filed ahead of a federal appeals court hearing to decide whether the FCC can actually regulate calling rates in a case brought by a group of private phone companies.

Norman Ornstein, a political scholar at the conservative public policy think tank American Enterprise Institute, called the move "cruel."

“This is, in effect, a tax on very poor people to enrich prisons and phone companies,” he told ATTN:.

Inmate on the phone

In 2015, the FCC voted to cap how much private phone companies can charge for calls from federal prisons and jails, dropping rates for in-state and out-of-state calls that could cost over $1 per minute. The decision was promptly challenged by phone companies who contract with prisons and make up an estimated $1.2 billion-a-year prison phone industry.

This week, the D.C. Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals heard oral arguments for the case. The FCC lawyer, David Gossett, said that under the leadership of new FCC head Ajit Pai, the agency would not defend the in-state rate-caps in court. As a sitting FCC commissioner, Pai voted against the caps in 2015.

Gossett said the agency would continue to defend caps on interstate calls, which were within the agency’s authority, as well as restrictions on additional fees on top of steep per-minute rates — $5.95 for an inmate to connect a call using a “live agent,” for example.

Inmate call rates

The intra- and interstate fee caps, which ranged from 11¢ to 31¢, were stayed in March of last year. The FCC notice may be a relatively small change, but it was enough to make at least some observers nervous.

“The fact that the FCC is not defending their authority to regulate in-state phone rates cannot be viewed as a positive development,” Carrie Wilkinson, Prison Phone Justice director for the Human Rights Defense Center, told ATTN:.

And Orenstein, highlighting the economic burden the fees place on families with incarcerated loved ones, many of whom are cash-strapped, added that “[i]n an era where phone calls are next to nothing, this is an onerous burden."

ATTN: reached out to Global Tel*Link, the plaintiff in the suit, and will update this story when we hear back.