Once again, a Federal Communications Commission attempt to lower the price inmates pay for phone calls has been blocked in court.
A ruling this month from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit granted a petition for a stay filed by Securus Technologies, putting a halt to rate caps on inmate calling services that were implemented in August, according to a report from online trade publication Ars Technica.
“Petitioners have satisfied the stringent requirements for a stay pending court review,” judges wrote.
The FCC has repeatedly been stymied in attempts to lower the rates inmates pay for phone calls to family, friends, and lawyers, Ars Technica reported.
After a March ruling by a federal appeals court stayed new rate caps of 11 cents to 22 cents per minute on both interstate and intrastate calls from prisons, the FCC proposed new caps of 13 cents to 31 cents per minute in an attempt to satisfy the court.
Those new caps were halted in this month’s ruling.
Prison phone companies Global Tel*Link (GTL) and Securus Technologies argued that the FCC’s limits fell short of what the companies are contractually obligated to pay in “site commissions” to correctional facilities.
Though the FCC hasn’t tried to ban or limit the site commissions, the commission argued that the latest caps would better account for the companies’ costs.
The FCC has been able to implement a cap of 21 cents per minute on interstate long-distance calls, but attempts to reduce prices on in-state calls have failed, with the FCC’s Democrats and Republicans split on the issue.
Republican Ajit Pai criticized Democrats, saying that this was the fourth time the appeals court stayed the FCC’s inmate calling rate regulations.
“I am not aware of any other proceeding in which the courts have intervened this frequently to block agency action,” Pai said. “It didn’t have to be this way.
“Three times I have urged my colleagues to adopt reasonable regulations that would substantially reduce interstate inmate calling rates and survive judicial scrutiny,” Pai said. “Three times they have declined. And so here we are yet again — left with little more than a faded headline.”
Just three years ago, FCC Chair Mignon Clyburn expressed optimism during a workshop about the movement in the long-fought battle to reduce telephone rates for inmates and their families.
In front of several prison officials from New York, Nebraska and other areas, Clyburn said at the time that she was upbeat.
“I get extremely excited when talk leads to action, and [the] workshop marks yet another action phase for the issue of prison pay-phone rates,” she said.
There have been instances where a single phone call from prison eclipsed the cost of an average monthly telephone bill, and in 42 states with limited or no reforms, connection fees alone run an average of $4 per call on top of charges of 89 cents per minute, Clyburn said.
“Some say this is not really an issue, because inmate phone calls should cost more than normal phone services due to needed security protocols,” Clyburn said.
But the chairwoman noted that eight states and some localities have succumbed to FCC pressure and have reformed their inmate rate structure.
As late as 2013, the phone market in state prison systems is worth more than $362 million annually and payments to governments in return for exclusive phone contracts account for an estimated $152 million per year.
Many have argued that those commissions are at the root of why call rates are so high for inmates and their families.
“The department’s experience indicates that inmate calling rates can be reduced substantially if states eliminate their commissions on the calls, and structure competitive bidding processes that ensure that the cost of the call is among the primary attributes of their inmate calling contracts,” Anthony Annucci, acting commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, said at the workshop.
In 2007, the department eliminated its commissions on inmate calls. Prior to that, the department received a 57.5 percent commission on every completed call, which cost inmates about $4.48 per 20-minute phone call.
Because of that reform, the cost for an inmate to make a 20-minute call from a New York correctional facility is now 96 cents.
“There are significant benefits that can be attributed to lower rates that seem to outweigh the operational challenges that also attach to the process,” Annucci said.
The FCC first tackled the issue in 2000 when D.C. resident Martha Wright took the lead in a class action lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Wright and 19 others sought a ruling that the phone service contracts entered into by prison officials were illegal.
In 2001, the case was sent to the FCC for its review.
In 2007, Wright and others petitioned the FCC to set benchmark rates of 20 cents per minute for calls placed using a calling card, and 25 cents a minute for collect calls.
“Multiple studies indicate that having meaningful contact beyond the prison walls can make a real difference in maintaining community ties, promoting rehabilitation and reducing recidivism,” Clyburn said.
The chairwoman added that the FCC and the states need to work together despite what she called elusive cooperation in the past.
“Reforming the inmate calling regime is a FCC priority. It is important that we expedite this, given the impact on families, especially low-income families, and I look forward to working with [our partners] today and through the remainder of this process,” Clyburn said.