FCC asks states to lower the cost of in-state inmate calls

September 22, 2020 GMT

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — More than 1,800 jails and detention centers across the United States charge more for inmates to make in-state calls than they can legally charge for out-of-state phone calls, according to data from the Federal Communications Commission.

That means the vast majority of inmate calls — about 80% — are charged at what the FCC calls “exorbitantly high rates.”

Federal Communication Commission Chairman Ajit Pai asked U.S. governors Tuesday to lower the rates in their states. Three years ago, Pai directed the FCC’s attorneys to drop their legal defense of rules that would have capped the rates of in-state calls.

“The FCC is doing its part on this vital issue, but we can’t regulate the 80% or so of inmate calls that take place within a single state. That’s why we need action by state leaders,” Pai said in a prepared statement.

The federal regulatory agency can legally limit how much jails and prisons charge inmates to make interstate calls. But it doesn’t have the same authority over intrastate calls.

In 2015, under the Obama administration, the FCC created rate caps for in-state inmate calls as well, but telecom companies sued.

When Pai was appointed by President Donald Trump in 2017 to chair the FCC, the agency abruptly dropped its defense of the rules, telling the court that a majority of members on the commission didn’t believe the agency had the authority to cap the in-state rates. The federal appellate court ruled in favor of the telecom agencies, allowing the cost of in-state calls to soar.

“We know that keeping inmates and their loved ones connected reduces recidivism and helps children with incarcerated parents,” Pai said. “And given that most inmates are incarcerated in the same state where their families live, the rates charged for intrastate calls are critically important. I hope governors, state legislators, and other officials will take action.”

The FCC issued a list of facilities that charged what it called exorbitant in-state calling rates across the U.S. It included 37 jails and juvenile detention centers in Idaho, each charging between 25 cents and $3.52 for the first minute of a phone call, and as much as $1.15 a minute after that. Inmates in the Clearwater or Lewis county jails would have to pay more than $17 for a 15-minute phone call, according to the FCC.

“The rates for some of these county jails in Idaho are egregious and alarming,” said Ritchie Eppink, legal director for the ACLU of Idaho.

Eppink said the high rates are anti-family, anti-public safety and economically unsound because people who are incarcerated can’t choose their own service providers. He said many jail phone contracts include kickbacks, creating a source of income for the government entity that runs the jail and creating an incentive to keep the rates artificially high.

“Keeping in touch with family and friends and loved ones is what keeps families together,” Eppink said.

The rates were even higher in some other states. Inmates in the Arkansas County Jail, for instance, must pay $24.80 for a 15 minute phone call to someone else in Arkansas. People held in the Clovis Police Department jail in Clovis, California, must pay $1.75 a minute, making that 15-minute in-state phone call cost $26.25.

Many of the people in jails and detention centers haven’t been convicted of a crime. They are people who have been charged and are waiting for trial, and simply can’t afford bail, said Howard Belodoff, a Boise attorney and the associate director of Idaho Legal Aid Services.

“Charging people who can least afford it is ridiculous,” Belodoff said. “It’s obvious — if you’re in jail, you’re not employed, you’re not making any money and if you have a family and kids, they don’t have the money either. If you cut off contact with the support they have, that’s detrimental.”