By Walter F. Roche Jr. / The Tennessean
Ending a decade-long effort, the Federal Communications Commission
has set a nationwide cap on the rates inmates and their families and
friends can be charged for interstate telephone services.
the order approved Friday on a 2-1 vote, calls made by debit or prepaid
cards will be assumed to be "just and reasonable" if they don't exceed
12 cents per minute, while collect calls will be presumed reasonable at
14 cents per minute.
Telephone companies will be allowed to
petition for an exception to those caps, but an absolute cap of 21 cents
per minute will apply for debit and prepaid card calls while an
absolute cap of 25 cents per minute applies for collect calls.
order also bars prison telephone companies from charging inmates for
commissions paid to state and local prisons. Those fees or commissions
now amount to $3.8 million annually for the state prison system and
Mignon Clyburn, the FCC chair and the chief
proponent of the new caps, said that under the order a 15-minute call
that now costs $17 will cost only $3.75.
The order does not apply
to intrastate calls, but the FCC has announced it will begin
consideration of a similar cap on those charges.
"The wait is finally over," Clyburn said in the moments before the vote. "It's been a long time coming."
and other advocates noted that the effort began a decade ago when
Martha Wright filed a petition to cap rates so she could talk to her
Voting against the measure was
Commissioner Ajit Pai, who warned that the order would likely face a
legal challenge and the unintended consequences could be that some
inmates would have telephone service reduced or eliminated.
also warned that the data collection and cost reporting requirements
established under the order would overwhelm the FCC and its staff.
G. Petro, a Washington, D.C., attorney who represents Wright and a
group that has been battling for a rate cap for years, disagreed with
Pai's assessment, stating that the FCC order "fits squarely within its
statutory authority to eliminate unjust, unreasonable and highly unfair
rates and practices."
Joining Clyburn in approving the order was
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who said that it would have a direct
impact on 2.7 million children across the country who have at least one
parent in prison.
The order could have an immediate impact in
Tennessee, where the state prison phone system is operated under an
exclusive contact with Global Tel Link, one of a handful of companies
nationwide to provide prison phone service.
According to Tennessee
Corrections Department officials, the contract with Global Tel Link
generates about $2.5 million in revenues for the state. Davidson County,
which has a contract with the same firm, got $1.3 million in payments
over the last year, according to Sheriff Daron Hall.
order, telephone companies would be effectively barred from charging
inmates or their families for those fees paid to corrections
Critics of current prison phone contracts charge that those payments amount to kickbacks.
order states that "site commissions," payments from providers to
correctional facilities, may not be included in any interstate rate or
"The vote today was an important first step, but we have
more work to do," said Alex Friedmann, of Prison Legal News. "State
legislators and regulators have the power to follow the FCC's lead and
all appropriate agencies should work to ensure universal access to
affordable phone rates for all consumers of prison phone calls."
Tennessee Regulatory Commission's power to regulate rates of in-state
inmate calls was removed in 2009 by an act of the state legislature.
measures included in the order are provisions barring the phone
companies from charging higher rates to inmates who require special
services due to speech or hearing disabilities.
Global Tel Link officials could not be reached for comment Friday.