Court Blocks FCC Bid to Lower Prison Phone Rates

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 12: FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn testifies before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation during an FCC oversight hearing on March 12, 2013 in Washington, DC. FCC members warned that a planned 2014 incentive auction of broadcast TV spectrum for mobile broadband use could encounter setbacks.   
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
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Brendan Sasso
Jan. 13, 2014, 10:32 a.m.

A fed­er­al court on Monday blocked por­tions of the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion’s ef­fort to lower the rates that pris­on­ers and their fam­il­ies pay for phone calls.

The de­cision is a set­back to Mignon Cly­burn, an FCC com­mis­sion­er who made pris­on call re­form her top pri­or­ity dur­ing her six months as act­ing chair­wo­man last year.

The three-judge pan­el of the D.C. Cir­cuit Court put por­tions of the FCC’s pris­on call or­der on hold while it con­siders the law­suit. 

Cly­burn has ar­gued that phone com­pan­ies are gou­ging pris­on­ers and their fam­il­ies, who have no oth­er op­tion for keep­ing in touch.

“Too of­ten, fam­il­ies are forced to choose between spend­ing scarce money to stay in touch with loved ones or cov­er­ing life’s ba­sic ne­ces­sit­ies,” she said at an emo­tion­al meet­ing last Au­gust when the FCC ap­proved the ac­tion.

Cly­burn ar­gued that cut­ting in­mates off from their fam­il­ies and com­munit­ies makes them more likely to com­mit new of­fenses.

In­mates must pay as much as $17 for a 15-minute phone call, ac­cord­ing to the FCC, and many must pay ad­di­tion­al fees for every call they place. The FCC or­der re­quires com­pan­ies to jus­ti­fy the rates they charge in­mates.

The or­der also caps rates at 21 cents per minute for pre­paid calls and 25 cents per minute for col­lect calls.

But com­pan­ies that provide phones ser­vices to pris­ons sued the FCC, claim­ing the agency over­stepped its au­thor­ity, failed to fol­low prop­er ad­min­is­trat­ive pro­ced­ure, and vi­ol­ated their con­sti­tu­tion­al rights.

The court blocked the FCC re­quire­ment that com­pan­ies jus­ti­fy their costs, but the over­all caps will re­main in place. 

Re­pub­lic­an FCC Com­mis­sion­er Ajit Pai voted against the pris­on call or­der in Au­gust, warn­ing that the com­mis­sion was on weak leg­al ground.

In a joint state­ment, Chair­man Tom Wheel­er, Com­mis­sion­er Jes­sica Rosen­wor­cel and Cly­burn said they are pleased that the rate caps will go in­to ef­fect next month.

“These fam­il­ies have been forced to pay ex­or­bit­ant rates for far too long,” the Demo­crat­ic of­fi­cials said.  

“Al­though we are dis­ap­poin­ted that the court gran­ted a par­tial stay on oth­er as­pects of the In­mate Call­ing Ser­vices Or­der, we look for­ward to a hear­ing on the mer­its soon, and to ad­opt­ing fur­ther re­forms quickly.”

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