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Monopoly cracking? FCC rules that telecoms can't charge $14 per minute for prisoner phone calls

Prison telecoms

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(NaturalNews) The Federal Communications Commission is about to get hit with a lawsuit from a gaggle of telecommunications companies who are fighting for the right to charge prison inmates a whopping $14 a minute to call relatives.

In a recent decision,[PDF] the FCC voted to cap the prices prisoners pay for phone calls. The panel's vote came after it received numerous complaints that inmate-calling telecoms are overcharging prisoners, family members and attorneys. After learning that charges sometimes hit $14 a hour, the FCC capped them at 11 cents per minute, ARS Technica reported.

"None of us would consider ever paying $500 a month for a voice-only service where calls are dropped for seemingly no reason, where fees and commissions could be as high at 60 percent per call and, if we are not careful, where a four-minute call could cost us a whopping $54," FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said ahead of the panel's vote.

The two major inmate calling telecoms, Global Tel*Link (GTL) and Securus Technologies, want to continue to charge those exorbitant rates and have vowed to take the FCC to court.

The panel's decision "create[s] significant financial instability in the industry and will pose a threat to service at many of the nation's smaller jails," GTL said in a statement posted to its web site. "Consequently, GTL is left with no choice but to seek judicial review of the FCC's order."

The coming lawsuit

In addition, GTL CEO Brian Oliver charged that the FCC has "hurt inmates and their families — the very people they set out to help. While they might see lower per-minute rates, they could be left with either the lowest quality of phone service or no phone service at all."

Meanwhile, Securus said the decision "will cause smaller and medium-sized prisons and jails to lose the ability for inmates to communicate with friends and family." The firm promised to appeal the order and seek a stay from the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C. in the meantime.

In a statement outlining the panel's majority ruling, the FCC said:

Acting on its mandate to ensure that rates for phone calls are just, reasonable and fair for all Americans, the Federal Communications Commission today took further steps to rein in the excessive rates and egregious fees on phone calls paid by some of society's most vulnerable: people trying to stay in touch with loved ones serving time in jail or prison.

The commission's three Democratic members voted in favor of the changes. Republicans Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly dissented.

Tom Wheeler, the FCC's Democrat chairman, said he was not surprised at the threat of a lawsuit. He said the panel is already under fire for issuing so-called "net neutrality" rules, preempting state laws that hamper municipal broadband, and other rules.

The FCC said its vote "lower[s] the cap to 11 cents per minute for all local and long distance calls from state and federal prisons, while providing tiered rates for jails to account for the higher costs of serving jails and smaller institutions."

The exorbitant charges are not all bad. Jails and prisons have been charging phone companies large commissions in exchange for exclusive contracts; the commission payments are then passed along to prisoners.

The FCC's rule did not outlaw those commissions. However, the panel said it "strongly encourages parties to move away from site commissions and urges states to take action on this issue."

Clyburn added that "states must do their part and take a hard look at their site commission practices and how such payments impact prices, service, and the reverberating impact on the community."

O'Rielly said he dissented because he doesn't believe the panel has the power under the Communications Act to impose the rules. He also predicted that the caps "will lead to a worse situation for prisoners and convicts," and any "cost savings" from inmate pay telephone calls "will likely be extracted in some other form."

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