Ap­peals court tosses FCC cap on cost of calls to pris­ons

South Florida Times - - FRONT PAGE - By TALI ARBEL AP Tech­nol­ogy Writer

NEW YORK - A fed­eral court struck down reg­u­la­tions in­tended to cap the price of some calls to prison in­mates, which can cost fam­i­lies thou­sands of dol­lars a year.

In a 2-1 de­ci­sion, the U.S. Court of Ap­peals for the Dis­trict of Columbia found Tues­day that the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Com­mis­sion lacked au­thor­ity to set rates for calls be­tween in­mates and peo­ple in the same state.

Com­pa­nies that pro­vide prison phone ser­vice have de­fended their prices and sued to stop the 2015 FCC rules. The in-state rate caps, in­tended to stop high charges be­tween in­mates and peo­ple in the same state, were sus­pended by ear­lier court de­ci­sions and never went into ef­fect. The FCC does reg­u­late the price of out-of-state calls for pris­on­ers.

Ad­vo­cates for pris­on­ers and their fam­i­lies have long pushed for reg­u­la­tion to pre­vent price-goug­ing in the in­mate phone mar­ket. The FCC noted in 2015 that costs for a call could be as high as $14 a minute, a pro­hib­i­tive ex­pense for many low-in­come fam­i­lies try­ing to stay in touch with in­car­cer­ated loved ones.

In Au­gust 2016, the FCC pro­posed cap­ping both outof-state and in-state call rates at a range of 13 to 31 cents per minute. The FCC had said that would re­duce the price of an av­er­age 15minute call for most in­mates by about 35 per­cent.

FCC Chair­man Ajit Pai said Tues­day in a state­ment that he plans to work on the prob­lem of high prices of prison calls "in a law­ful man­ner." The agency dropped its de­fense of the in-state caps af­ter Pai was ap­pointed by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

An­drew Jay Schwartz­man, an at­tor­ney who stepped in to ar­gue on be­half of the in­state rate caps in Fe­bru­ary, said the ap­pel­late de­ci­sion could block any FCC ac­tion on the is­sue un­less it's over­turned.

"Any way you cut it, this is very bad news for fam­i­lies and loved ones, not to men­tion the pris­on­ers them­selves," he said. In­di­vid­ual states, how­ever, re­main free to set their own lim­its on in­state calls. FCC rules cur­rently cap in­ters­tate calls 21 to 25 cents a minute.

Global Tel(as­ter­isk)Link, one of the coun­try's big­gest prison-phone com­pa­nies, com­mended the court's rul­ing. The com­pany said it is "com­mit­ted to mar­ket­based re­forms that re­sult in lower rates" for calls, but those changes must "ac­count for the true costs" of pro­vid­ing phone ser­vice. Other prison phone providers did not im­me­di­ately com­ment on the rul­ing.

An­other provider of prison phone calls, Cen­tu­ryLink, said the court reached a "cor­rect rul­ing."

The is­sue has been be­fore the FCC since 2003, when Martha Wright, who had an in­car­cer­ated grand­son, pe­ti­tioned the agency to reg­u­late call rates. She died in Jan­uary 2015.

COURTESY OF JUS­TICE IN­TEGRITY PROJECT

An­drew Jay Schwartz­man

STOCK PHOTO

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