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FCC caps rates for prison inmates' phone calls

8:42 PM, Aug 9, 2013   |    comments
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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.

Under 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.

The 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 Davidson County.

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."

She 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 incarcerated grandchildren.

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.

He also warned that the data collection and cost reporting requirements established under the order would overwhelm the FCC and its staff.

Lee 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.

Under the order, telephone companies would be effectively barred from charging inmates or their families for those fees paid to corrections departments.

Critics of current prison phone contracts charge that those payments amount to kickbacks.

The order states that "site commissions," payments from providers to correctional facilities, may not be included in any interstate rate or charge.

"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."

The Tennessee Regulatory Commission's power to regulate rates of in-state inmate calls was removed in 2009 by an act of the state legislature.

Additional 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.

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