Prison Phone Calls To Continue To Be Expensive After Court Rules Against FCC Pricing Regulations

The court said that the FCC has no authority to regulate prison phone call prices.

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| June 14 2017,

10:49 pm

We all know that being poor is expensive, but did you know that being incarcerated can really tax the ol’ bank account too?

That’s right — something as simple as a short phone call can cost prisoners a lot of money. 

In fact, The Washington Post reports that, in some states, rates can reach $14 per minute. At $14 per minute, a four minute phone call totals $56!

That’s more than most people’s monthly phone bills! 

Crazy, right?

The FCC decided to do something about it, and took prison phone service providers to court.

Initial court dates went this way and that, and eventually the FCC and the phone providers ended up in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

It was a showdown at high noon.

And the FCC lost.

In a 2-1 ruling, the court said the FCC had overstepped its authority.

In an odd twist, the FCC agreed.

The question in the case was whether or not the FCC had the authority to cap prison phone call prices.

When the parties first went to court, the FCC argued that it did have that authority, based on a law that empowers the commission to make sure that all telephone providers are fairly compensated. 

The FCC originally said that they companies could be fairly compensated without charging super high rates.

As things stand now, thanks to the structure of prison phone contracts, companies find themselves with little to no competition for providing phone services. Basically, they are free to charge however much they want. 

Prisons — particularly private prisons — encourage this system, because the phone companies typically give them a cut of their earnings. So the more the phone companies charge, the more prisons get for allowing them to service their facilities’ phones.

Now here comes the weird thing: at the appeals court, the FCC argued that it had been wrong before, and that it doesn’t have the authority to set limits on rates.

Why the flip flop?

Well, because the Trump administration cleaned house at the FCC; this case began when the FCC was run by one group of people, and it is now run by another group, led by Republican Ajit Pai.

Before Pai was in charge, he was a commissioner at the FCC, and voted against regulating phone prices.

Now that he’s running the show, Pai says that figuring out how much phone calls should cost is a matter for Congress, not for the FCC.

While the majority opinion found that the FCC could only say whether or not phone companies were being “fairly compensated,” the minority judge wrote, “I cannot agree that a company is ‘fairly compensated’ … when it charges inmates exorbitant prices to use payphones inside prisons and jails, shield from competition by a contract granting it a facility-wide payphone monopoly.”

With Pai in charge, it doesn’t seem like the FCC will be agreeing with the minority position anytime soon, but, as is always the way with these things, with a new administration will come new officials, so, maybe things will get better for prisoners and their families in four to eight years.