Prisoner advocates have long complained about the high cost of making phone calls from the nation’s correctional facilities. They accuse phone and prison companies, and some states, of profiteering from inmate populations, charging up to $17 for a 15-minute call (plus interconnection costs) in some cases.
Under Democratic leadership, the Federal Communications Commission came to the advocates’ aid by capping the amount service providers can charge (at 13 cents per minute in state and federal prisons). But that effort was just dealt a severe blow. In a 2-to-1 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said the F.C.C. had exceeded its regulatory authority, handing a victory to phone companies and several states who had brought the appeal.
The ruling affects the F.C.C.’s decision to cap charges for in-state calls, which make up the majority of calls made from prisons. The court also struck down an order ending “commissions” paid by companies to prison operators. Prisoner advocates argued that these commissions–phone companies giving prison operators a percentage of the call charges–were in effect “kickbacks.” One estimate by a coalition of advocates for inmates said phone companies paid at least $460 million in 2013, either to private companies or states that run facilities.
Judges Harry Edwards and Laurence Silberman said phone companies had the right to be “fairly compensated” and that the F.C.C. had misrepresented the amount prisoners were actually paying. In a dissenting opinion, however, Judge Cornelia Pillard said, “I cannot agree that a company is ‘fairly compensated’ . . . when it charges inmates exorbitant prices to use payphones inside prisons and jails, shielded from competition by a contract granting it a facility-wide payphone monopoly.”
With the election of President Trump, the F.C.C. is now under Republican control. New F.C.C. chairman Ajit Pai previously voted against regulating the issue and chose not to defend the F.C.C.’s orders in the new action. In a statement today, he said he would work with “all stakeholders to address the problem of high inmate calling rates in a lawful manner.” It’s not clear how that might happen, though several states, including New York and New Jersey, have their own phone charge caps.
Prisoner advocates were aggrieved by the court decision but promised to keep litigating the issue, possibly to the Supreme Court. “It is profoundly disappointing and will result in serious continuing harm to untold numbers of families and loved ones of incarcerated people,” Andrew Schwartzman, an attorney with Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Public Representation, told the Washington Post.
The campaign for lower prison phone calls dates back to 2003 and a single Washington, D.C. grandmother, Martha Wright. Wright made regular Sunday calls to her grandson, Ulandis Forte, an inmate, and struggled over time to meet growing phone costs–up to $100 a month–and began an effort to cap them. Prison advocates say lowering call costs keeps inmates in touch with their families, helps with rehabilitation, and even reduces reoffending rates.