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New FCC Boss Decides It's Cool If Phone Monopolies Want To Rip Off Inmate Families

from the man-of-the-people dept

For decades, inmate calling service (ICS) telcos have charged inmates and their families upwards of $14 per minute for phone calls without anybody giving much of a damn. Because these folks are in prison, and as we all know everybody in prison is always guilty, drumming up sympathy to convert into political momentum had proven difficult. But after decades of activism, the FCC intervened in 2013 and again in 2015, voting to cap the amount companies can charge the incarcerated for intrastate phone calls. This resulted in a firestorm of complaints from these companies, which not only get to rip off inmates, but have all too cozy and often not particularly legal relationships with law enforcement.

One of the more vocal ICS outfits, Securus, quickly sued the FCC, going so far at one point as to claim that inmates would riot if the company wasn’t allowed to continue overcharging inmates and their families. Securus, Global Tel*Link and other providers challenged the FCC’s intrastate rate caps in the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, claiming the agency lacked the adequate authority to set caps and that the rates were too low. And for the last several years, the FCC had been working to defend its actions in court.

That all changed last month, when Donald Trump pegged Ajit Pai to head the FCC. Pai and former Commissioner Mike O’Rielly had consistently voted against defending inmates from monopoly overcharging. And just days after giving a speech in which he professed his selfless dedication to closing the digital divide, Pai effectively decided to pull the rug out from underneath FCC Deputy General Counsel David Gossett, who had been defending the FCC’s action in court. In a brief filed by Gossett last week (pdf), he notes that he was ordered to no longer defend the FCC’s intrastate calling cap:

“As a result of these changes in membership, the two Commissioners who dissented from the Order under review?on the grounds that, in specific respects, it exceeds the agency?s lawful authority?now comprise a majority of the Commission,” Gossett wrote. Gossett is thus no longer authorized to defend the FCC’s previous contention that it “has the authority to cap intrastate rates for inmate calling services” and cannot defend the FCC’s assertion that it “lawfully considered industry-wide averages in setting the rate caps contained in the Order,” he wrote.”

Despite Pai suddenly undermining the agency’s own lawyers, all is not lost quite yet:

“Gossett said he will continue to defend other parts of the commission’s October 2015 order, which also lowered the price of interstate calls, those that cross state lines. Despite the FCC’s various losses, a 2013 decision to set interim rate caps of 21? to 25? per minute for interstate calls has survived court challenges…The FCC’s decision to stop defending the full order hurts the case for maintaining rate caps on intrastate calls in which both parties are in the same state, but it doesn’t completely kill the case. The FCC is ceding 10 minutes of its allotted argument time to attorney Andrew Schwartzman, who is defending the rate caps on behalf of prisoners’ rights groups.”

It’s worth reiterating that voice services these days cost very little to actually provide. Also keep in mind that Securus and other such companies are part of a dangerously cozy and captive market, where prisons get paid upwards of $460 million annually in “concession fees” (read: kickbacks) to score exclusive, lucrative prison contracts. In this comically absurd environment, the service pricing and quality are just about what you’d expect. Government oversight of these businesses have been virtually non-existent, in part thanks to accusations that these companies have allowed some law enforcement to monitor what should be privileged attorney client communications.

The fact that making it easier to rip off inmates was new boss Pai’s first move in office should tell you plenty about just how far his dedication to “closing the digital divide” is going to go. That’s before you realize that Pai’s other early actions have involved preventing 9 pre-approved ISPs from helping the poor, killing an FCC plan to bring competition and cheaper rates to the cable box, and killing all FCC Net neutrality enforcement moving forward. With friends like these…

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Companies: global tel*link, securus

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Comments on “New FCC Boss Decides It's Cool If Phone Monopolies Want To Rip Off Inmate Families”

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49 Comments
That One Guy (profile) says:

Doesn't count

Not only is everyone in jail guilty, far more importantly is that everyone knows that prisoners don’t have rights, they have privileges that can be revoked, among them the ability to talk to those outside the jail including their lawyers and/or family.

If the criminals aren’t going to respect the law then it’s only right that they aren’t protected by the same laws they hold in contempt, so it would be absolutely absurd to think that the system owes them anything. If they want to talk to other people then they can damn well pay, and pay dearly for the privilege.

/poe(just in case anyone read the above and was thinking ‘Yeah, that sounds right’)

Bamboo Harvester says:

Re: Doesn't count

Prison, not jail – there’s a huge difference. The prison communications market is captive, the jail market isn’t.

As stated, the public has known about this for years. I wonder if the OTHER prison “services” such as cable TV and internet are as locked and jacked up as voice comm is.

And prisoners DO have many of their rights revoked, and they don’t magically come back when their sentence is up. A court has to be petitioned to restore those rights.

Just a side note to that – when you petition to have Rights restored, and a Judge grants them, the DOJ does… well, nothing. Same for Expungements. DOJ just ignores it. If you want to vote, own a firearm, etc. you need a to get a “special ID number and letter” from the Court, as the DOJ will never update your records.

ShadowNinja (profile) says:

Re: Free Market!

And everyone knows people who are enslaved have lots of extra spending money sitting around to pay $14 per minute of a phone call!

(For those unaware, the 13th amendment makes clear treating prisoners as slaves and making them doing the kind of labor America used to have slaves do is perfectly legal. And prisoners are essentially slaves with how they make like 25 cents or so an hour for such labor.)

ShadowNinja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Free Market!

Nope. There’s even been some prison strikes in recent years over this. 🙁

From what I learned in school, part of why this was put in the 13th amendment is supposedly some people were paranoid at the time that without the clause, imprisoning people could potentially be declared unconstitutional. The fear being a prisoner could successfully argue to the SCOTUS that prisoners are treated no different than slaves, and therefore imprisonment is unconstitutional under the 13th amendment abolishing slavery.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Free Market!

I genuinely don’t get their math either. They pay them ridiculously low wages (cents per hour), but then charge fees for phone and commissary that nobody in the outside world could realistically afford.

RE 13th: That is horrifically f-ed up. Seriously. but I am also one of those folk who think the entire non-violent offender jail system needs to be scrapped for one based mostly on rehabilitation and second chances.

Anonymous Coward says:

okay.... misleading title

title of article
“New FCC Boss Decides It’s Cool If Phone Monopolies Want To Rip Off Inmate Families”

first sentence
“For decades, inmate calling service (ICS) telcos have charged inmates and their families upwards of $14 per minute for phone calls without anybody giving much of a damn.”

So the New, the Old, plus the old old FCC Boss thought the same as well huh?

Wording could clearly be better, part of responsible journalism should be to thoughtfully word titles to be a little more indicative of the situation. At least you come clean in the first sentence so it is not that big of a deal, but it does lead one to wonder if sensationalizing the tittle is part of any deep seated bias or just for eye grabbing purposes!

I like to read between the lines, it lets me know what type of bias I am dealing with.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Red Herring

The fundamental issue here is whether the FCC has any legal “authority” to dictate “prices” to private businesses in the U.S.

Issues of prisons are merely peripheral to the main legal/regulatory point above.

The U.S. Constitution grants no authority to the Federal Government to dictate private pricing in any area. Consequently, FCC attempts to dictate prices are fundamentally unlawful.

The side issue of prisoner ripoffs is totally a result of decisions made by the GOVERMENT AGENCIES running the prisons. Those agencies could easily negotiate fair prices for phone services… if they wanted to.

The prisoner-phone stuff is a red-herring to attack Trump/Fajit.

Baron von Robber says:

Re: Re: Red Herring

Horse shit.

“Article I, Sec.8, clause 1, U.S. Constitution, says: The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States”

Federal Communications Commission
“The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is an independent agency of the United States government, created by Congressional statute (see 47 U.S.C. § 151 and 47 U.S.C. § 154) to regulate interstate communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Communications_Commission

Lizie Warren says:

Re: Re: Re: Red Herring

“…(FCC) is an independent agency of the United States government, created…to regulate INTERSTATE communications…”

The FCC doesn’t have jurisdiction over intrastate communications.

Inmates and prisoners deserve affordable means of communications with their friends and families.

The FCC is responsible to regulate interstate communications but individual state service commissions are responsible in regulations pertaining to intrastate communications.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Red Herring

I agree with Barron, the FCC as an agency has no constitutional authority to set prices, Congress does not have the power to GIVE it to them either.

I also agree with Lizie, that we should not be causing unnecessary expense to families looking to communicate with their loved ones.

It is my opinion even 24 cents a minutes is price gouging itself. The price should be closer to 1 cent a minute. I have found that the American prison system is psychologically configured to encourage more crime and institutionalization of its victims. We need far more suitable solutions to dealing with petty crimes especially.

Anon E. Mous (profile) says:

While I agree that people who break the law and get punished by being sent to jail for it have to suck it up and do there time, I don’t agree with the fact that an inmate needs to pay an outrageous amount to talk to their family/friends.

There are a ton of people who dont have the means inside jail with prison inmate jobs or whose families have the means to pay the insane per minute fees to talk to the person who is behind bars.

Inmates dont get hours and hours to sit and blab on the phone, their is a que to get on the phone and then you are only allotted so much time and then your time is up and it is the next persons in line’s time.

Inmates do not just have free access to the phone anytime they want, it is restricted just like visitation is and yes inmates can lose both those privileges, much like they can with time in the gym or exercise yard, or being confined to their cell.

Should inmates have to pay for their phone privileges, yes, they should, but they shouldn’t be gouged for them. Prison isnt like being at daycare, I doubt anyone here wouldn’t have their sanity tested being behind bars especially those that are looking at years and years.

Inmates are separated from everything that they knew outside of the prison, and they are subjected to a whole new world once they are inside and ask anyone who has been there it isnt any picnic, your at way more risk inside than you were outside.

Inmates are paying for their crimes make no mistake about it, and they are separated from family and friends be that as it may there is no reason to gouge them with exorbitant
phone rates to make a phone call. The companies that supply the services to the prisons make bank on it as it is, they are upgrading these services all the time, this isnt like AT&T having major cost to keep up with technological advances to benefit consumer or cities.. it’s a captive market (literally) Prisoners cant just decide they dont like the service they are getting and go elsewhere.

Inmates connections to their families and friends are about all that keep some of the inmates from taking their life or someone else’s inside and it is no joke. Do the companies that provide the service have a right to a profit sure, most would agree to that, but they do not need to gouge the fuck out of the inmates to do it.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: "people who break the law"

Remember that our justice system has a 90% conviction rate even before we get to plea bargains.

That’s because we give our grossly overworked public defenders very little budget, so they really don’t have time or manpower to build a case.

Then we seize the assets of suspects to prevent them from affording a defense. We often do so before they are suspects, on the pretense that the money is criminal.

(And Trump just encouraged county sheriffs in a recent meeting to seize more assets because it’s all drug money.)

Then we favor our law enforcement so much (even when they perjur the court) that we favor officer testimony over video to the contrary.

(And I’m not even going to address our shitty overreaching laws, such as our drug possession laws with mandatory minimums and the CFAA and Espionage Acts, all of which are subject to prosecutorial discretion)

So we can pretty safely argue that a significant portion of our prison population — what remains the highest incarceration rate in the world — is innocent of the charges with which they were convicted.

Which makes them political prisoners.

If we were a humane country, we’d recognize that imprisonment is containment, pending reform, not punishment. Indeed, convicts typically leave the prison system less capable of reintegrating into society than as the convicts they were when they entered.

Our prison system is way fucked up, and any mistreatment of its inhabitants is sheer abuse, often of falsely-convicted innocent civilians.

Anonymous Coward says:

I know charging up to $14 a minute is pretty crazy, but don’t the police also have people monitoring the phone calls? I would assume part of this money is going to pay for that. It still seems way to high though. That just just adds up fast. I don’t think it should be more then $5 a minute.

A very large percentage of people in JAIL are just waiting to go to court and many are in their for months or longer before found guilty or Innocent in court. Then sent to Prison to do their real time.

There is no free market in jail or Prison, well other then what the prisoners do between themselves.

sorrykb (profile) says:

The other part of this is that prisons and jails have started ending in-person visits by family members of prisoners. Instead, their only option is video calling. This is not only a very poor substitute for face-to-face visits, but also — surprise surprise — hugely expensive for prisoners and their families, and enormously profitable for the prisons and the companies providing this "service".

There should not be a profit motive to keep people in prison.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

That is just so fucked, the prisons in the US are really not there to solve the problem with crime, because they are just containing it for a bit and then sends people out again with even more hate and anger. WTF!
Seriously, do the Scandinavian model, where the focus is on rehabilitation and not punishment, with US having re-offenders at 76.6% and Norway at 20%.
If you want people to treat you like a human being, you have to do the same. The US always puff up it’s chest about it’s new testament christian values, but I don’t see much compassion there, just old testament wrath and the urge to hurt people back.

And of course the prison systems greed, fuck that. I have watch a lot of scifi movies about a bleak future, and currently it starts to look like someone can make a documentary instead but still look the same.

Tronald Dump says:

Satire: I told Ashit Poo to do that...

Satire

I own the companies behind the companies offering the services and had noticed a decline in revenue.

I needed to prop up those revenue streams if I am going to cover the lawsuits for all the illegal executive orders I plan to write to maximize my business pursuits while hiding behind the presidential seal of office.

/Satire

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

You are mistaken about that, they want the FCC, just all the rules that give businesses every blessing or edge against the citizens as possible.

This is not a first for the FCC, it is very much a part of it’s own history and the natural course of just about every regulatory agency you can think of. The for profit motivation of privatizing the prison system along with the FCC makes for natural bed fellows as you can see from this story.

And you will find more than enough judges willing to put everyone in jail to receive kickbacks from these things. I am not sure when America will wake, but heck I am not even sure IF America will wake up at all.

timmaguire42 (profile) says:

“as we all know everybody in prison is always guilty”

So it’s ok to do this to the guilty?

But it’s so important to not do it to the innocent yet wrongly convicted (whatever that number is, you obviously don’t know), that we should not do it to anybody for the sake of those unknown few?

For the love of god, get away from politics! You haven’t got what it takes and you’re bringing down a once great site.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

A pointless argument. You need to specifically point out the failing, not just that they failed.

Based on the quote he is responding to a thread that invoked Poe’s law and he missed it, and you failed to make that clear. If you are interested in instructing people on the errors of their ways… considered adding more content.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Based on the quote, which appears on this page only twice (once in the article and once in his comment), he’s responding not to the comment thread you claim he is but to the article and its author. The content, if you can call it such, of the rest of his comment suggests that he, as the red-avatar AC below me also noticed, failed to grasp the obvious fact that the author’s quoted statement was sarcasm. He also did nothing to suggest that his own comment was itself sarcasm, hence it instead demonstrates his lack of comprehension.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: And yet...

While we don’t say every imprisoned convict is guilty we certainly presume it when we’re not thinking about it.

Moreover, when suspects are convicted, it’s presumed they were convicted fairly, yet when they are acquitted they escape justice.

And this narrative runs through all of our fiction, where the bad guy is obviously bad long before the arrest…

Except in Agatha Christie stories, in which everyone is just a little bit evil.

Anonymous Coward says:

It’s a well known fact that a large percentage of inmates were railroaded into prison by underfunded public defenders office and DAs plea bargains. This situation greatly benefits the private prison industry who most likely helped in its creation. This modern day slavery is disgusting, but nothing will be done now that despots are in power.

Bill (user link) says:

Disappointing, but hopefully the states will take up this cause..

Unfortunately, the FCC was tasked doing what the state regulatory commissions should have been doing all along. Most states have inmate phone rate caps, but they have not been enforcing their rules and have not been forcing many inmate phone providers to even register in their states!

Many of the counties have realized that their revenue actually goes up with lower rates and have been forcing their inmate phone providers to quit charging the all-too-common $14.99 for a minute call.

The class action suits in California are also gaining attention of county jails and state prison systems, since the FCC and several states have now set that .25 per minute or less is what is considered “Fair and Reasonable”.

Several inmate phone companies are sticking with the spirit of the FCC ruling and helping educate jails and prison systems of the hidden fee games of some of the larger providers.

With that said, I think Pai is basically going to force the states to do their job, so make sure all your readers know to complain to their state regulatory agencies. Here’s the list, just click on your state: https://www.naruc.org/about-naruc/regulatory-commissions/

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