Private telecommunication companies in charge of operating phone systems in US prisons and jails have for years charged prisoners and their families exorbitant rates for phone calls. In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) acted to stop the practice, capping the rates of long-distance and local calls. The prison telcos challenged the decision—and with a new guard in charge under the Trump administration, the commission will no longer fight to keep the rates down.
The FCC, now chaired by Trump-appointed Ajit Pai, announced its new position last week, in what is truly a bizarre legal twist. As part of a court case brought by prison companies against the FCC, the commission’s counsel told the judges in a letter that the FCC would not defend its right to cap in-state prison phone call rates. The case continues, however, with advocacy groups defending the FCC’s right to curb the costs, while the agency sits back.
After one Democrat resigned from the commission, and another’s term ended, the commission now includes only three members, and two of them are Republicans, who voted against the caps back in 2015. Mignon Clyburn, the lone Democrat, who has led the effort to curb the rates said in a statement on Feb. 6 that she remained hopeful, and that she would not give up. “Regardless of how the Court rules, I will continue to press forward to ensure that inmates and their families receive just, reasonable, and fair phone rates. Justice demands it, and so do I.”
Currently, the caps for in-state calls are under a court stay, which means that the private telecommunications companies are still charging inmates and their families hefty fees. These add up to sometimes as much as $24.95 for a 15-minute phone call to someone who could be standing across the street from the prison or jail, according to a January filing to the FCC on behalf of advocates. In some cases, the advocates argue, the companies are apparently violating other FCC rules such as charging a flat “connection fee” for every phone call, which was a common practice before the commission took on the issue.