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June 30, 2017

Inmate Calling Rates

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has struck down a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rule that sought to address extremely high phone rates charged to prison inmates for intrastate calls. The panel’s 2-1 ruling June 13 stated that the FCC exceeded its statutory authority under the Telecommunications Act of 1996 for regulating intrastate calling rates. The rule, which was first announced in October 2015 and had been scheduled to go into effect in early 2016, was put on hold by the court in March 2016 after phone service providers and several states challenged the FCC’s authority and said that the new rates are too low. The rule would have set a cap of 11 cents per minute for all local and long distance calls from state and federal prisons while providing for tiered caps on rates for jails that ranged from 14 cents per minute for calls in jails with 1,000 or more inmates to 22 cents per minute for jails up to 349 inmates. This would have reduced the average rate for most calls to no more than $1.65 for 15-minute local and long distance calls from state and federal prisons. Prior to approval of the new rule, rates averaged about $3 for a 15-minute call but sometimes could reach as high as $14 per minute. While the Obama administration issued and defended the rule, the new FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai under the Trump administration agreed with the court’s decision and indicated in a statement that the commission will “address the problem of high inmate calling rates in a lawful manner.” In comments submitted to the FCC in 2015, the ABA supported the rule, saying that the commission’s attempt to lower inmate calling rates would have brought jails and state and federal prison facilities more closely in line with the ABA Standards for the Treatment of Prisoners. The ABA standards call for open and affordable lines of communications between a prisoner and the prisoner’s family and attorney to help with re-entry planning during incarceration.


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