Inmate Phone Service Draws FCC Scrutiny

he Federal Communications Commission has signaled an interest in regulating phone service for inmates, stepping into a long-running legal battle over prisoners' rights.

Inmate lawsuits dating back more than a decade argue that exclusive arrangements between prisons and service providers have restricted their phone choices and driven up rates—chilling their speech in violation of the First Amendment.

In a notice to be published Tuesday in the Federal Register, the FCC says that "regular telephone contact between inmates and their families is an important public policy matter," and points to studies that show that regular contact with family reduces inmate recidivism. The notice asks for public comment on a range of possible regulations, including rate caps and the elimination of per-call charges.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit last year rejected the First Amendment claims of an Arkansas prisoner who said a 10-minute interstate call cost him $10.43, plus taxes and other charges. The FCC has jurisdiction over interstate communications, but inmate calling-services rates in state prisons are generally set by the states. The rates for long-distance interstate calls vary widely. Rates in federal prisons are set by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Inmate calling services are typically limited to collect or debit-based calling from payphones. Collect calls from a correctional facility usually incur a two-part charge: a per-call setup charge and a per-minute charge. The FCC notice says the per-call charge can vary from 50 cents to $3.95 and per-minute charges can vary from five to 89 cents.

Adding to the costs, contracts between prisons and service providers often include so-called site commissions—payments the service providers kick back to the prisons.

The Eighth Circuit case highlighted a contract between the Arkansas Department of Corrections and Global Tel Link, in which the company turned over 45% of its gross revenue to the prison system. The commission payments amounted to more than $2 million per year.

The FCC asked for comment on what legal authority it has to address such commissions.


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