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Providing Relief for the Families of Inmates From the High Cost of Staying in Touch

by: Julie Veach, Chief, Wireline Competition Bureau

September 26, 2013

Today, the Commission released an Order that will provide meaningful relief to millions of Americans who have borne the financial burden of unjust and unreasonable interstate inmate calling service (ICS) rates.  These reforms are the right thing to do.  Our actions will increase inmates’ ability to stay in contact with their families and loved ones—including the 2.7 million children with an incarcerated parent.  That increased contact reduces recidivism, which benefits all of us through safer communities and by reducing the expense of incarcerating the re-offenders.  In fact, one study notes that a 1% reduction in recidivism would lead to $250 million in annual cost savings.   

The ICS rates that spurred us to act are high.  In one case, the cost of a 15-minute call is $17.50—about $1.15 per minute.  The Order we released today is a major step toward fulfilling our statutory obligation to ensure that rates for all consumers are just, reasonable and fair. 

Let’s take a look at the reforms:

  • The Order requires that all ICS providers’ interstate rates and charges be cost-based.  This applies not only to the rates for making a call, but to other charges like fees for establishing, maintaining, or funding an ICS account. 
  • The Order also adopts interim caps for interstate inmate calling rates.  The caps are $.21 per minute for interstate debit and prepaid calls, and $.25 per minute for interstate collect calls.  No provider can charge rates above these caps without getting a waiver from us first.   
  • The Order adopts interim “safe harbor” rate levels—$.12 per minute for interstate debit and prepaid calls, and $.14 per minute for interstate collect calls.  ICS providers can utilize the safe harbor and receive the benefit of a presumption that their rates are cost-based.     
  • The Order also takes action to help deaf and hard of hearing inmates and their families.  Specifically, the Order prohibits any special charges from being assessed on calls made using teletypewriter (TTY) equipment or other technologies used to access Telecommunications Relay Services (TRS).
  • At the same time, the Order ensures that security measures, a critical part of ICS calling, remain robust, and allows security costs to be recovered through ICS rates.  The Order leaves critical decisions about security to correctional facilities and ICS providers.
  • The Order also adopts robust enforcement measures, including an annual certification that rates are cost-based and the possibility of enforcement action and refunds.

We aren’t done, though.  To decide whether additional reforms are needed, we will be collecting data from ICS providers on their costs, rates, and usage.  And in an accompanying Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, we seek comment on extending the reforms we adopt for interstate ICS calling to intrastate services, further refining ICS rates, adopting permanent rate caps, and a variety of other issues related to our commitment to ensure that ICS providers continue to provide secure calling at rates that are just, reasonable, and fair.

In a separate Declaratory Ruling and Order, also released today, the Bureau addressed a petition from an ICS provider on the permissibility of blocking calls to call routing services; such services may provide a means for consumers to stay in touch with incarcerated loved ones.  The provider asked us to agree that a few narrow exceptions to the Commission’s general “no blocking” policy for telephone services applied here.  The Declaratory Ruling and Order denies the petition, and in our Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, we seek comment on call blocking, including whether we need to take further steps to prevent unreasonable practices while enabling providers to implement measures to protect security and public safety.

While our work continues, inmates and their families should start to experience the benefits of our reforms later this year—the new rules will become effective 90 days after we publish the Order in the Federal Register.  We look forward to reviewing the responses to our Further Notice and continuing our work to ensure that ICS rates and practices are just, reasonable, and fair.

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