FCC to Reduce Inmate Calling Rates After D.C. Circuit Rejections

On Wednesday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced that it has responded to calls to reduce inmate calling services (ICS) rates. The proposed reform, embodied in the FCC’s Report and Order on Remand and a Fourth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, comes after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit twice rejected past FCC efforts.

The Communications Act, implemented by the FCC, requires that ICS rates are “just and reasonable,” in light of the need for “incarcerated individuals and their families to stay connected.” The proposal includes several measures remediating faults previously highlighted by the D.C. Circuit.

First, it addresses ancillary service charges. These are separate fees not included in the per-minute rates charged by ICS providers for individual calls. The appellate court “directed the Commission to consider whether these charges can be segregated into interstate and intrastate components for the purpose of excluding the intrastate components from the reach of the FCC’s rules.” The proposed order determined that the charges cannot be separated except on a limited basis. Therefore, ICS providers are in large part subject to the FCC’s ancillary service charge rules, and cannot circumvent fee caps.

The proposal also suggests new rate caps for interstate ICS calls. The reduced rates are “based on extensive analysis of the most recent cost data submitted by ICS providers.” The changes seek to reduce rates by about one-third, to “$0.14 per minute for debit, prepaid, and collect calls from prisons, and $0.16 per minute for debit, prepaid, and collect calls from jails.”

Finally, the proposal adopts rate caps for international ICS calls for the first time. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement, “I’m proud that we’re taking a comprehensive, bipartisan approach to address the ICS rates and charges within our jurisdiction.”

He also noted that in order to cap rates for intrastate ICS calls, which he says the FCC lacks authority to do, state counterparts must step up. “I urge our state partners—Governors, state legislatures, state corrections officials, and state commissions—to address intrastate ICS rates. That’s why I recently sent a letter to the President of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners as well as 45 state commissions calling on states to exercise their authority and, at long last, address this pressing problem,” he remarked.