Federal Communications Commission chief Ajit Pai is urging that states impose caps on the price of intrastate prison phone calls—ones that existed on the federal level until Pai’s FCC abandoned them in court.
Per Ars Technica, on Monday Pai sent a letter to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (a group of state utility regulators) warning of “alarming evidence” that rates being charged for calls to and from incarcerated people are “egregiously high.” He then called for NARUC to ensure that rates for those calls drop, which could be generously construed as demanding they pick up his slack. From the letter:
Given the alarming evidence of egregiously high intrastate inmate calling rates and the FCC’s lack of jurisdiction here, I am calling on states to exercise their authority and, at long last, address this pressing problem. Specifically, I implore NARUC and state regulatory commissions to take action on intrastate inmate calling services rates to enable more affordable communications for the incarcerated and their families.
As Ars Technica noted, during Barack Obama’s administration, the FCC’s attempts to put caps on the fees charged by prison phone operators for intrastate calls ran into repeated setbacks in court. Plaintiffs Global Tel*Link (GTL) and Securus Technologies arguing the agency only had jurisdiction over interstate calls.
One of the first changes at the FCC in early 2017, shortly after Donald Trump appointed Pai as chairman, was its decision to agree the prison phone companies were correct the FCC had overstepped its authority and to stop defending the intrastate rules in court. (The FCC’s sudden reversal baffled the court and confused proceedings, with Judge Laurence Silberman saying “This case is really strange.”) The defense was then taken over by independent intervenors who lost the case in June 2017, when the court also agreed the FCC had no jurisdiction to regulate intrastate calls. In the ruling, judges heavily cited the FCC’s newfound belief that it lacked the legal power to stop intrastate price gouging.
Pai’s decision to back down helped intrastate prison phone rates that had in some cases soared past a dollar a minute stand. While calling rates at state prisons are bad enough, a Prison Policy Initiative report in early 2019 found that jails run by localities like cities and counties charge astronomical rates—in Texas, the average going rate for a 15-minute call was $6.50, while in Arkansas the average rate was $14.49. (The highest rate identified in the report was nearly $25 for a 15-minute call in Arkansas.) The study also highlighted how companies like Securus used various tricks to ensure that customers generally paid for calls on an individual basis rather than via accounts, ensuring the highest possible rate.
Notably, Pai had previously represented Securus as an attorney. In 2018, he refused to recuse himself from an FCC investigation into the company’s practice of handing over real time location data on cell phone users to police officials without a court order.
In the letter to NARUC, Pai wrote that the problem was “unacceptable,” out of control, and doing serious harm to incarcerated people and their loved ones, citing numbers matching the Prison Policy Initiative report. However, he also argued the FCC was “powerless” to address it because federal courts had twice remanded the agency for trying to impose intrastate rules in the past—conveniently leaving out that Pai had later hung the rules out to dry.
Per Pai’s letter:
Intrastate rates for debit or prepaid calls substantially exceed interstate rates in 45 states. Thirty-three states allow rates that are at least double the current federal cap, and 27 states allow excessive “first-minute” charges up to 26 times that of the first minute of an interstate call. Here are some numbers: For an interstate call, the first-minute charge may not exceed 25 cents today, but for an intrastate call, first-minute charges may range from $1.65 to $6.50. Indeed, Commission staff have identified instances in which a 15-minute intrastate debit or prepaid call costs as much as $24.80—almost seven times more than the maximum $3.15 that an interstate call of the same duration would cost.
It’s too bad, then, that Pai punted authority to state commissions that currently are doing absolutely nothing about it. They’ll definitely get right on that now.
The court decision throwing out the FCC’s intrastate rules was “a disaster for families of incarcerated people, a large percentage of whom are low-income and people of color,” Center for Media Justice co-founder and executive director Malkia Cyril told Vice in 2017. “In refusing to defend its own decision to reduce the cost of calls from prison, Trump’s FCC chairman Ajit Pai went above and beyond to defend predatory private interests, hurting America’s most vulnerable population, children with an incarcerated parent.”