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State Officials Go To Court To Challenge FCC Cap On Inmate Phone Call Fees

Jan 31, 2016

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.”

Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. More Oklahoma Watch content can be found at www.oklahomawatch.org

  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.

Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that produces in-depth and investigative content on a range of public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to oklahomawatch.org.

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