The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has announced that Feb. 11, 2014 will be the effective date for rules adopted in the 2013 Report and Order that regulate the amount inmates may be charged to use calling services.
In its announcement, the FCC states that it adopted the rule changes to “bring high interstate inmate calling service (ICS) rates into compliance with the statutory mandate of being just, reasonable and fair. This action is intended to bring rate relief to inmates and their friends and families who have historically been required to pay above-cost rates for interstate ICS.”
As of the effective date, providers’ rates for interstate inmate calling services must fall at or below rate caps of $0.21 per minute for debit and prepaid interstate calls and $0.25 per minute for collect interstate calls.
The FCC also established a “safe harbor” rate of $0.12 per minute for debit and prepaid interstate calls and $0.14 per minute for collect interstate calls; a safe harbor rate is a rate that will be assumed lawful unless and until the FCC issues a finding to the contrary.
ICS providers whose rates fall within the safe harbor rate will not be required to provide refunds in any complaint proceeding. The order affects all “correctional facilities” that provide an interstate inmate calling service which includes prisons, jails and immigration detention facilities.
The order also requires that all interstate ICS rates, fees and ancillary charges must be cost-based. Costs that are “reasonably and directly related to the provision of ICS are recoverable through ICS rates.” Recoverable costs include cost of capital (reasonable return on investment); expenses of originating, switching, transporting and terminating ICS calls; and costs associated with security features.
Costs that are not recoverable include site commission payments, costs related to general security features of the correctional facility unrelated to ICS, costs to integrate inmate calling with other services such as commissary ordering; internal and external messaging; and personnel costs to manage inmate commissary accounts.
The prison-jail private phone call system is estimated to be a $1.2 billion per year industry.
The new regulated rates affect only out-of-state calls. Intrastate calls, by far the bulk of calls, are not subject to the FCC’s established interstate safe harbor rates and rate caps.
However, the FCC is now seeking information with which to establish rates at the intrastate level through its Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM) process. It is especially looking for comments on the claim that the difference between jails and prisons accounts for the variance in cost of service and further seeks comment on how to define “jails” and “prisons.”
It also seeks comment on whether jail inmates have different communication needs and calling practices than those in longer-term facilities like prisons, and whether any differences apply uniformly to all jails, smaller jails or to jails with certain characteristics.
Counties that wish to comment on these issues should contact NACo associate legislative director, Yejin Jang at firstname.lastname@example.org. Counties that wish to file directly with the FCC can submit comments through the FCC’s electronic comment filing system (ECFS). The proceeding number for this issue is 12-375. Note that all comments submitted through ECFS will be made public within a few business days.
The effort to regulate inmate call charges began nearly 10 years ago when a grandmother from Washington. D.C., Martha Wright, petitioned the FCC for relief from what she characterized as exorbitant long-distance calling rates from jails and prisons.
On Nov. 21, the FCC Wireline Competition Bureau denied last-minute petitions to suspend the order or postpone the intrastate rulemaking proceeding.
In July, NACo’s Board of Directors adopted a resolution supporting the ability of county jails to recover the cost of providing inmate-calling systems. NACo also supports providing a cost model that recognizes the difference between prisons and county jails.