FCC Failure to Defend Prison-Phone Rules in Court Ends in Damaging Blow to Inmates and Their Families

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Timothy Karr, 201-533-8838

WASHINGTON — On Tuesday, a federal appeals court struck down several provisions in the Federal Communications Commission’s recent decisions to cap the cost of prison- and jail-phone calls.

In late 2015, the FCC voted to reduce the exorbitant cost of prison-phone calls charged to incarcerated people and their families. The ruling capped rates for local and in-state long-distance inmate calling and cut by up to 50 percent the agency’s cap adopted in August 2013 on state-to-state long-distance calls.

Shortly thereafter, the agency was sued by the prison-phone industry, which challenged the FCC’s interstate rates and the agency’s authority to set rates for calls within state lines. In February 2017,  Donald Trump’s newly appointed FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, said the agency’s lawyers would not defend key aspects of the prior Commission’s rules in court.

In yesterday’s decision, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the agency’s proposed caps for in-state calls, questioned and remanded key components of its interstate rate caps, and said the agency lacked the authority to require reports on video-calling services. The ruling deals a damaging blow to inmates and their families, many of whom have spent years litigating caps on the cost of these calls, which can run to more than a dollar per minute.

Free Press Deputy Director and Senior Counsel Jessica J. González made the following statement:

“Yesterday’s opinion is deeply disappointing because it leaves the prison industry and prison-phone companies largely unaccountable for abusive and exorbitant prison-phone rates. FCC Chairman Pai has acknowledged that prisoners and their families have suffered from this, yet he abandoned the defense of the FCC’s reforms in this court case.

“This is bad for families. And it’s especially unfair to the children of inmates, who deserve to have a relationship with their parents. This ruling will be particularly destructive to Black and Latinx people given that the racially biased practice of mass incarceration impacts those communities the most.”

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