Federal Court Sides With Oklahoma, Blocks Caps on Inmate Phone Costs

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A legal challenge, partly spearheaded by Oklahoma leaders, has blocked the federal government from setting limits on how much inmates and their families can be charged for in-state telephone calls.

The U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2-1 decision Tuesday that the Federal Communications Commission exceeded its authority in creating a national rule that sought to cap fees on intrastate phone calls for the first time.

The change, which would limit fees to 11 cents per minute in state or federal prisons and from 14 to 31 cents per minute in local jails, was set to take effect Dec. 12, 2016, for prisons and March 13 of this year for jails.

Prisoner advocates had hailed the move as a critical step toward upholding the rights of inmates and ensuring they have the ability to stay in touch with their loved ones while incarcerated.

But Oklahoma, followed by several other states, local governments and telecommunications companies, challenged the ruling and successfully argued for the fee caps to be put on hold while the lawsuit was heard.

Representing the coalition of state and local governments, Oklahoma Solicitor General Mithun Mansinghani argued that states, not the FCC, have the power to cap fees on intrastate calls.

He also argued in a brief that the fee limits are “arbitrary and capricious” since they don’t take into account all the costs for jails or prisons to offer the phone services, such as escorting inmates to the phones and monitoring and recording the calls.

“Absent these tasks performed by jail and prison officials, allowing inmates unfettered and unsupervised access to phones would present unacceptable risk to the lives and well-being of both those inside and outside the prison,” Mansinghani wrote in a brief to the appellate court.

Representatives of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections and the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association also submitted testimony that the fee caps would severely impact their budgets.

The DOC, through its contract with Dallas-based Value-Added Communications Inc., currently charges 20 cents per minute, which totals $12 per hour, in addition to a $3 transaction fee for using a credit card, debit card, electronic check or deposit. Inmates can pay the costs themselves, but their families typically set up prepaid accounts.

Tina Hicks, DOC’s chief of administrative services, submitted an affidavit estimating that the department would lose $1.2 million per year if the 11-cent-per-minute fee were to go into effect. Without that money, she wrote, the department could be forced to cut substance abuse and mental health treatment, counseling programs, health care and other services.

Court filings show the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office, which currently charges flat per-call fees from $2.25 to $3.25 and per-minute fees from 4 cents to $1, would lose between $457,000 and $850,000 per year if it has to comply with the FCC cap.

“The excessive cost would have been detrimental to the DOC and sheriff’s offices,” Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said in a press release. “This ruling will allow for inmates to continue communicating with their families on the outside while ensuring the calls are properly monitored.”

But advocates for the FCC rule argued that jails and prisons can take advantage of inmates and charge exorbitant fees without offering a choice of providers. This, they argued, could leave inmates with hefty bills – and little means to pay the charges – during or after their incarceration.

As Oklahoma Watch reported last year in a series titled “Prisoners of Debt,” many jails and prisons in Oklahoma and elsewhere contract with private telecommunications companies to provide phone systems for prisoners. As part of the service agreements, jails and prisons often get a substantial cut of the money earned from prisoner phone calls.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who argued the courts should uphold the rule, said high prices unfairly punish family members — particularly children — who want to stay in contact with their loved ones in jail or prison.

“(The) D.C. Circuit decision is deeply disappointing,” she said after the ruling was announced.  “(It’s disappointing) not just for me and the many advocates who have fought for more than a decade to bring about much needed reform in the inmate calling services regime, it is a sad day for the more than 2.7 million children in this country with at least one incarcerated parent.”

The ruling did not affect the FCC’s limits on interstate calls. Those rates are 21 cents a minute for debit or prepaid calls and 25 cents a minute for collect calls.

This story was updated Wednesday afternoon to include comments made by Attorney General Mike Hunter sent after the article was initially published.