FCC prison phone regulation ruling published in Federal Register, to take effect Feb 11.
by Peter Wagner, November 13, 2013
The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) historic order reining in the exploitative prison and jail telephone industry has finally been published in the Federal Register, making it official. (The footnoted version of the order is still available on the FCC’s website.) Starting February 11, a single call home from prison or jail will no longer cost a family as much as $17 and new rules will improve how this market operates. The FCC Commissioners are also requesting public comments, due December 13, on a series of questions related to expanding the scope and operation of their order.
Here’s a breakdown of the details of the FCC’s order:
- Establishes that inter-state (between states) rates must be reasonable and sets a maximum rate cap of 21 cents per minute for prepaid and debit calls, and 25 cents for collect calls.
- Encourages prison telephone companies to set their inter-state rates at 12 and 14 cents per minute. The FCC decided that any company that sets all of its rate at or below that level will not have to justify the reasonableness of their rates.
- Requires the telephone companies to file annual reports that disclose and justify their rates and fees. Collecting this information will bring the contract negotiation process between companies and correctional facilities into the light, making it possible for the FCC to evaluate the charges. (This provision will take effect after the Office of Management and Budget gives its approval.)
- Requires that phone companies base the fees charged for deposits, refunds, etc. on the actual cost of providing the service. This prohibits companies from using fee collection as an additional, hidden, source of profit. (Currently some companies charge as much as $11.10 to accept a $25 credit card deposit, and as much as $5 to refund money after people are released.)
- Prohibits prison telephone companies from using the cost of site commission payments to justify charging high rates and expensive fees to the consumer. FCC declined the request to ban the commissions outright, instead requiring that any commissions be paid out of reasonable profits. This leaves the correctional facilities with some income, but removes the correctional facilities and the companies’ perverse financial incentive to maximize consumers’ bills.
- Prohibits companies from charging higher rates to people who need assistive hearing or speech services.
The FCC also published a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to seek input on imposing further regulations. Commissioners’ questions include:
- Whether the FCC should also regulate the burgeoning market for video, email and voicemail services that may grow even more common than phone systems in the near future.
- Whether and at what level the FCC should cap the rates that companies can charge for in-state calls.
- Whether and at what level the FCC should cap the rates that companies can charge for international calls.
- How the FCC can best ensure that fees charged for prison and jail telephone service be “just, reasonable and cost-based”.
- How the FCC can best enforce its already-existing rules prohibiting companies from improperly blocking calls to cell phones or for other reasons.
- Whether the FCC should to adopt specific regulations concerning call quality.
- Any further action to protect the communication between deaf and hard of hearing people and incarcerated people.
Advocates for fair phone rates have been calling for regulation for more than a decade, beginning with a 2000 class action lawsuit brought against the Corrections Corporation of America and several prison phone companies. In 2003, a federal judge decided that the case fell under the jurisdiction of the FCC, where it sat for years. This summer’s ruling, today published in the Federal Register, marks the first definitive action from the FCC to control the broken prison and jail telephone industry.
Here at the Prison Policy Initiative, we were thrilled to see that FCC order refers to our reports and written submissions several times, starting right in the second footnote’s cite to our submission, with SumOfUs, of 36,690 public comments in support of regulation.
We’re honored to be a part of the strong, diverse and sustained campaign that is breaking down the barriers that prevent families from remaining connected with incarcerated loved ones. No longer will private telephone companies be able to collude with the correctional facilities to charge the poorest families in the nation unconscionable amounts of money just to stay in touch. We look forward to keeping up this great momentum to work with our colleagues towards full and comprehensive regulation of the prison phone industry!