January 29, 2016

State Officials Go to Court to Challenge FCC Cap on Inmate Phone Call Fees

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The state of Oklahoma and state law enforcement officials are challenging a recent Federal Communications Commission rule that caps the amount of money prisoners and their families are charged for telephone calls.

Oklahoma Department of Corrections’ interim director Joe Allbaugh, Oklahoma County Sheriff John Whetsel and the Oklahoma Sheriffs Association filed a petition on Jan. 25, via Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s office, requesting the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals invalidate a ratings cap on inmate phone costs passed by the FCC in October.

The court unsealed the petition Friday. So far, Oklahoma is the only state to challenge the FCC rule in federal court.

The recent FCC ruling limits the amount private phone companies can charge for inmate calls to between 11 and 22 cents per minute. The FCC rule, most of which goes into effect on March 17, also limits the ancillary fees and collect-call prices for inmate phone calls.

The petition claims the FCC overstepped its legal authority and ignored the cost to jails and prisons to provide phone services to prisoners.

“Petitioners request that the Court declare invalid, set aside, and enjoin enforcement of the Order and provide such additional relief as may be appropriate,” the petition states.

The FCC changes followed years of complaints from inmates’ family members and advocacy groups about what they said were exorbitant calling fees charged by prisons and jails.

As reported last year by Oklahoma Watch in a series titled “Prisoners of Debt,” many jails and prisons in Oklahoma and elsewhere contract with private telephone service companies to provide prisoner phone systems. As part of the service agreements, jails or prisons have been getting a substantial cut of the money earned from prisoner phone calls.

A family member of a prisoner petitioned the FCC 12 years ago to reduce the amounts inmates and their families are charged for phone calls. In some cases, prisoners and their relatives have reported being charged nearly $13 for each 15-minute call.

When the FCC passed the phone caps in October by a 3-2 vote, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who led the effort to get the rule passed, said the new rule would help inmates and their families stay in contact and that the system had been inequitable.

“It has preyed upon our most vulnerable for far too long,” Clyburn said. “Families are being further torn apart and the cycle of poverty is being perpetuated.”

Pruitt’s petition argues the decision to cap call rates will cost jails and prisons and will take away call revenue dedicated to offender welfare programs. Over 10 years, the department estimated its revenue from calls would be around $32 million.

Oklahoma County inmates were charged 27 cents per minute. At the time the rule was passed, Sheriff Whetsel estimated the cut would cost the jail about $500,000 per year.

On Wednesday, Michelle Robinette, acting Tulsa County Sheriff, told the Tulsa County Criminal Justice Authority that the new FCC rule would likely cost the county around $800,000 per year in phone revenue.

Four telephone companies that provide prisoner phone services – Securus Technologies, Global Tel-Link, Centurylink Public Communications and Telmate – have signed on to a similar action filed in the Washington, D.C., Circuit Court of Appeals.

Numerous prisoner and human rights groups have become involved in that case on the side of the FCC.

One of the groups is CURE, or Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants. Lynn Powell, director of the Oklahoma chapter of the organization, said the high costs to families of prisoners for phone calls not only exacts a financial toll, but a human one because phone calls are often the only way to stay in contact with families.

“It (the state petition) doesn’t surprise me,” Powell said. “I know they make a great deal of money off it, especially the sheriffs’ departments.”

Powell said a court ruling striking down the FCC requirement also would not surprise her because prisoners are a group that often garner little sympathy.

“They think it’s the inmates paying, when it’s not the inmates at all. It’s the families,” Powell said.

  • Great piece.

    I understand the reasoning behind covering costs of a service, and that makes fiscal sense. But nationally our justice system has shifted from a service mindset to one of revenue generation, at the same time people decry the idea of privatization as a bad idea, because we shouldn’t allow companies to make money on things like this.

    If private companies aren’t allowed to make money via the prison system, then neither should the government. Cover costs, yes. But once you start bringing in more money that that service costs you, you’re profiting off of the wrong people.

  • Jimmie Ruth Edwards

    The FCC ruling was one bright spot in this bleak journey. Now, because of greed, Oklahoma government and prison administrators are using money they suck up from the government in the first place to go to court to fight for more money. Here’s what they say they use this money for: “Pruitt’s petition argues the decision to cap call rates will cost jails and prisons and will take away call revenue dedicated to offender welfare programs.” Not true. There are very few programs left to better prisoners; they have all been discontinued due to cost and space. AT the prison where my son is they are so overcrowded that classes and any training are being hampered due to no space to conduct them. Families suffer terrible financial strain due to trying their best to pay for phone calls, traveling to visit, giving their loved one as much as they can to have a little soup, coffee, peanut butter in their cells, it costs the inmate for doctor’s service and meds, and families have to cover these costs. Inmates with families that cannot help them are left with pretty much nothing. I am not making this up. For instance, if an inmate needs something, say shoes, if we were allowed to buy them on the market, we could get a sale price but the commissary system gets to make a lot of money by requiring that the item is purchased through its system and it is more expensive. Phone calls are our lifeline. I am ashamed of Oklahoma legislators for allowing this case to be taken to court. It is so unfair.

  • Norma Sapp

    They aren’t spending the phone money for much! The latest reports I have are that prisoners are not getting indigent packages for simple things like soap deodorant and toothpaste! I’ve had two reports recently about Lexington A&R not having uniforms when new prisoners arrive and no hot water either!
    Paperwork is also not getting done in a timely manner to transfer or release prisoners. Which of course costs the citizens in extended time spent in the facilities.

    • Jennifer

      My husband is currenlty in Pott. Co. He has told me that his neighbor was given a used razor that had hair in it. His cellmate has diabetes and jailers have refused to check his blood sugar on numerous occasions. Inmates are forced to go nearly 2 weeks in the same jumpsuit and on top of everything else, they are only being fed about 1,500 calories a day! For a big man that is not much to survive on. Don’t even get me started on overcrowding!! I try to send as much as I can but I average about $100 per month just to talk to him twice a week. I’m raising four kids on my own right now and I feel like it is a personal blow for Oklahoma to be challenging the FCC’s decision. And most rehab programs have already been cut so I would like to see where all the money is going anyway. Not all people who are serving time are bad! People make mistakes… they should be allowed to learn from them. Don’t take it out on the innocent families!!!!

  • Magness

    My son is being held in our County Jail pending his first hearing. He was arrested May 1st & is supposed to have his preliminary hearing February 18th. He has been held more than nine months with few visits & extremely high costs to telephone. I live 3 blocks from the jail & he pays $9 for a 15 min call. He is a diet controlled diabetic & is not being given a proper diet, even after a letter from his doctor. He buys peanut butter every week from commissary to supplement his protein & has lost a lot of weight. What every happened to “innocent until proven guilty.”

  • Come on Sheriff Whetsel…you knew your provider was sticking it to the families. Those $14.99 single-payment calls are a tad bit steep, wouldn’t you think? Your buddies at Telmate are racking up a few more lawsuits too (Kalamazoo Michigan got sued last week and ICE late this last year), so you’re just at the front of a long line. I assume your contract with them indemnifies the county in the case of litigation for services?

    Your easier plea would be to say ” I never realized they were charging that much!”…the inmate families are embarrassed to come complain to the counties, so you probably have less than a .001% complaint rate…until an attorney catches wind of the extortion your provider is doing.

  • Sheriff Robinette has been mislead into thinking they won’t receive commission payments. Their current provider is going to take a revenue hit because they charge about $10 to put $20 on an inmate’s account. The FCC never said counties can’t receive commissions, but instead said they can receive commissions on fair and reasonable rates. With that said, Tulsa County just needs to find a provider who can still pay commission after the funding fees are capped at about $3.00 and the rates at about $.16 per minute. There are several out there chomping at the bit to get the county’s business, but right now they are relying on misinformation from their provider. As a matter of fact, with new FCC rates, inmate calling is actually stimulated and reported revenue back to the jail increases….so that $800,000 may increase to $900,000….just take your contract out for bid when your current provider says they have to renegotiate!

  • Unfortunately the jails are listening to their providers instead of reading all FCC comments and Ex Parte’s… this comment “The petition claims the FCC overstepped its legal authority and ignored the cost to jails and prisons to provide phone services to prisoners.”…the FCC is capping the rates at $.14-$.22 per minute…that’s not ignoring the costs of the jails since the FCC is still permitting commission payments. Several providers have changed to the FCC rates and have filed reports of INCREASED revenue, not decreased after the sticker-shock is gone from inmate families accepting collect calls from their incarcerated loved ones.

  • I don’t believe Sheriff Whetsel and the OK Sheriffs are aware that some of their inmate phone providers are charging as much as $14.99 to complete a 1 minute local call or charging as much as $10 to deposit funds on a debit account. You may want to ask your providers exactly what they are charging on their single-payment products, so you are aware of what you are defending in filing this appeal on the FCC ruling. The FCC did not intend for the ruling to hurt sheriffs, but instead just lower the rates charged to the families to reasonable levels ranging from $.22 down to $.11 per minute, which is enough for inmate phone providers to share with the jails. As a matter of fact, the FCC did not attempt to regulate commission payments. Do your homework before you attempt to throw out all the work that the FCC and several inmate phone providers did to actually save your commissions.

  • Anonymous

    $25,000. That’s how much I estimate have spent out of my own pocket to talk to my fiancé for a half hour a day for the last 5 years. In those 5 years, I have watched the food worsen, programs get cut, and phone techonology worsen. We have dropped calls almost daily now. Most of the people who actually pay for these costs are women supporti families while their men is in prison. I shake my head at all the complaints about how much revenue is going to be lost. State and county prisons should not run on the “revenue” generated by an individual citizen. Why so many prison and jail authorities think this is acceptable is baffling. Prison/jail operating costs should come from tax payer revenue, built into a proper budget that has been approved by legislature. If that isn’t enough, then there’s a problem. But that problem should not rest on my shoulders to fix.